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Imagine for a moment that you are sitting behind your computer and realize that, instead of clogging landfills when the computer becomes obsolete, much of it will be composted because the molded plastics that it is made of are biodegradable materials. So are the wood composites in the computer desk you're sitting at. You begin to look around you. The fabric on your chair and the carpet on the floor, as well as the clothes on your back, are wondrous new textiles made from corn. The ink your printer uses comes from soybean oil, as does the paint on the wall. The foam insulation between the wall studs comes from soybeans. Even the drywall is biodegradable. And the shingles on your roof are a biobased composite, nailed to high-strength particleboard made from corn stover.

On the floor, your daughter is coloring with soy-based crayons. Outside, your spouse is picking nutraceutical tomatoes, genetically-enhanced with extra flavor and nutrients in a garden where biodegradable film blocks weeds all season and is left to compost and be tilled into the soil next spring. Half of the products in your medicine cabinet are now plant-made pharmaceuticals. Your car runs on E85 - 85 percent ethanol blend. The vehicle's engine and transmission oil are biobased, as are most of the interior panels and fabrics.

The school bus dropping off your son is running on biodiesel made from soyoil and waste fats and oils from fast food outlets, schools and hotels - formerly a hazardous waste problem. City vehicles run on municipal solid waste or forestry and crop residues that have been broken down from cellulose to sucrose - then turned into ethanol at a city-owned biorefinery by new enzymes grown in bioengineered crops.

You begin to realize that just as the computer revolution transformed our economy, so will the biobased revolution. It will bring back a biobased economy that addresses a host of national issues, while revitalizing agriculture and rural communities with new markets and new jobs. Notice I didn't say "bring about" a biobased economy. I said bring it back. That's because for all of history, right up until the beginning of the industrial revolution, the world economy was a renewable, biobased one. Anything people needed that wasn't made from iron, stone or glass was made from something that grew - either wild or a crop or animal they raised. The only "oils" used were plant or animal oils.

But with the advent of the internal combustion engine, a need was created for liquid fuel in quantities no one at that time knew how to produce from plants and animals. The answer the world came up with was fossil fuel. Its low price led to its use in a huge variety of chemistries. But now, we're starting to come full circle. Just as the world's voracious appetite for energy outgrew the biobased technology of the 19th century, biobased advocates believe the world has outgrown the petro-based economy of the 20th century. Now, almost anything currently made from hydrocarbons can be made from carbohydrates.

Biobased Players

Kim Kristoff, president of GEMTEK Products
One of the most passionate promoters of a biobased economy is Kim Kristoff, president of GEMTEK Products of Phoenix. GEMTEK makes dozens of cleaners, solvents, anti-allergen body care products, industrial lubricants and other biobased products out of corn, soybeans and other plants, which are nontoxic, biodegradable and use no synthetic or petroleum-based chemical compounds. They are available either directly from GEMTEK under their own brands, such as SafeCare, SafeLube and AllerSafe, or available for private labeling. They also offer customized, safe cleaning chemistries and product image design with complete confidentiality.

Kristoff is a mission-driven man, operating under the corporate motto of "Safely Cleaning Planet Earth." As founder of the Biobased Manufacturers Association (BMA), Kristoff laments that Americans don't even know the true cost of fossil fuels that they buy. "If you factor in the hidden subsidies paid to oil companies, plus the hidden costs to every American of military preparedness to defend oil supplies, the lost value of the dollar due to our balance of trade deficits, and the health and environmental costs, the cost of relying on fossil fuel is many times the pump price," says Kristoff.

Indeed, some attempts to weigh such costs by environmental groups have put the figure at more than $15 per gallon.

Addressing a major landfill issue, Biocorp North America, Los Angeles, provides domestic and international leadership in biodegradable packaging to the food and beverage industries. The company sells only biodegradable products, which meet the most stringent scientific requirements for biodegradability and compostability, made primarily from corn and potato starch. The company's products include leaf and recycling bags, industrial linters, hot and cold cups, cutlery, salad containers, plates, straws, lids and boxes. Biocorp's products were featured in the 2002 Winter Olympics through a joint venture with Coca-Cola. Founder Frederic Scheer is a vocal proponent of regulatory policies that accurately differentiate biobased and biodegradable products so that the term is not misused to mislead the consumer.

Other major players include Cargill Industrial Oils & Lubricants, a division of the Minneapolis-based ag giant that makes paints and coatings, hardboard, inks, lubricants, pharmaceuticals and a host of specialty chemicals out of plants. DuPont, Wilmington, Del., has publicly stated the goal of manufacturing 25 percent of its global product line from biobased resources by the year 2010. A joint venture formed by Cargill Inc. and Dow Chemical in 1997 has invested more than $700 million in commercializing a new process to produce plastic from corn and other renewable products such as its breakthrough textile product, Ingeoâ„¢. Life science companies such as Genencor, Palo Alto, Calif., are developing new enzymes to dramatically lower the cost of converting cellulose to sugar, which will consequently make ethanol more affordable and a host of other products possible.

The list goes on and on. More than 400 companies and more than 1,000 individual products are already catalogued by BMA, which promotes networking among biobased companies and offers daily news updates to members through the Biobased Information System (BIS), a syndicated newswire offered to Web sites and intranets for redistribution. Wall Street has caught the biobased bug, too. NASDAQ co-sponsored an investor conference with the Biotechnology Industry Organization in January 2003 that dealt specifically with industrial biotechnology and biobased products.

Experience Matters

R. James Woolsey, chairman of New Uses Council Advisory Committee
Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey chairs the New Uses Council (NUC) Advisory Committee, which includes several nationally prominent members such as former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman and C. Boyden Gray, Counsel to former President George Bush Sr.

As former CIA Director, Woolsey offers a unique perspective. He notes, for example, that with demand for oil programmed to increase sharply in China and the rest of Asia, the United States faces an "obvious" need to commercialize emerging biobased technologies to improve security of all kinds - national, energy, homeland, economic and environmental. And he loves to remind farmers, ranchers, dairymen and foresters that they are in the forefront to supply the feedstocks for the return to a biobased economy.

Dan Manternach is currently VP of Producer Services for Doane Agricultural Services Co. and is former executive director of the Biobased Manufacturers Association.

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