Biomanufacturing will bring rural America to the fore in national response to COVID-19
Rural America will serve an integral role in saving lives and in our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
America’s farmers and the private sector have already partnered on their own to ramp up production of life-saving anti-viral medicines and therapeutics. A major investment in biomanufacturing must be part of our economic recovery strategy.
Bringing good-paying jobs and opportunity to small towns and rural communities left behind should be a bipartisan priority in responding to this crisis. One way to meet this goal is by expanding the market for biobased — or biomanufactured — products, composed mostly of agricultural ingredients like plant, animal, forestry and marine material.
Think of biomanufacturing as the value-added export of surplus agriculture from the heartland. We can use literally anything we grow — every fiber, crop residue and livestock waste product — to produce life-saving medicines, chemicals, polymers and advanced materials. So much of what we need in the immediate response to the pandemic and in the recovering economy at large can be plant-, crop- and livestock-based.
Biofuels, like ethanol and biodiesel, and biologics, like vaccines, cell and gene therapies, are well-known to consumers today and on the front lines combating COVID-19. Less common but emerging forms of biomanufacturing include the conversion of molecules from corncobs into plastic bottles, hog manure into asphalt, and vegetation that can extract rare minerals and precious metals from soil. These technologies are evidence that rural America leads the nation in innovation.
Rural America also leads the world in agriculture. America’s farmers run the most efficient operations in history. However, the number of farms has fallen from 7 million in 1935 to 2 million today. Our critical farmworker shortage is evident in comparison to China, which is home to 200 million farming households, compared with 30,000 farming families in the U.S.
Biomanufacturing represents an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to rejuvenate rural areas and reverse the preservation mindset with an outlook toward growth and prosperity. Expanding incentives for farmers and producers to expand their operations into biomanufacturing can be built on the success of the Obama administration’s Department of Agriculture, which launched loan and grant programs through Rural Business Investment Companies (RBICs) targeting small, mid-size and socially disadvantaged family farmers and ranchers.
Today, USDA is sitting on top of more than $220 billion of unused loans and grants for rural development. Let’s build on the success of existing USDA programs and the RBICs by allowing rural lenders to tap into that capital, similar to the Small Business Administration’s authority to leverage capital available to the SBICs.
By partnering biomanufacturing initiatives with investment in universal access to broadband, we will create growth in communities struggling to catch up with the 21st century economy. If we can build up the manufacturing economy producing biobased goods grown here at home, then we can help jump-start job growth and development across the rural economy.
Rural biomanufacturing also supports our environmental imperative to mitigate the effects of climate change. We propose centering biomanufacturing climate hubs that will connect public and land grant universities and cooperative extension services. These partnerships will provide technical support to communities investing in green infrastructure and manufacturing that have a lower carbon footprint.
By developing new plant-based construction materials, we will help farmers expand market opportunities at a higher value. The Agricultural Advanced Research and Development Authority, created in the 2018 farm bill but not yet funded by Congress, has the potential to be like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It will enhance Silicon Valley’s partnership with the heartland.
Agriculture and manufacturing are both the traditional and the future pillars of America’s economy. We support the rural way of life standing as part of the fabric of our American values. Robust support for biomanufacturing will make “Grown in the U.S.A.” part of our nation’s forward-looking approach to economic recovery, job growth and rural development. This growing market for biomanufacturing gives the children and grandchildren of today’s farmers more opportunities to work in high-paying jobs.
Delivering low cost capital for rural investment in farming technologies and biomanufacturing is the key for bringing rural America to the front lines of responding to our national emergency and in the economic recovery ahead.