The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Vilsack asks biofuel industry to take a stand

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today urged the advanced biofuels industry to fight charges that biofuels take people’s food and to defend the renewable fuel standard.

“You have to be passionate about it. You have to be more vocal about it,” Vilsack said in a speech to the Advanced Biofuels Industry Conference.

Noting that he gets questions all the time about biofuels “taking food away from us,” Vilsack said that biofuels affect food costs by only 4 percent, and that 84 percent of every food dollar goes to people other than farmers, which means that higher energy costs increase food prices while biofuels can increase domestic energy production.

“There are hundreds of people here today,” Vilsack said, telling the audience that being involved in the industry means doing more than just raising capital and running the business. Americans, he noted, like biofuels because “They like to be in charge of their destiny.”

Vilsack also said he is concerned about attacks on the renewable fuel standard, calling it “the linchpin of the industry.” He added, “We should be committed to it.”

The secretary also said he is concerned about the future of the Agriculture Department budget, particularly energy programs since they do not have baseline funding because they expired before the end of the farm bill. If the energy programs continue, he said, they will have to continue at the expense of something else.

He called the agriculture section of the budget that passed the House “a very, very deep cut.”

Vilsack also said the farm bill should give the Agriculture Department the ability to use the rural development business and industry loan program for new businesses such as advanced biofuels. At present that program “has focused on commercially viable industries,” he said, which would rule out risky projects such as advanced biofuels.

“We need it to grow and expand,” Vilsack said. “If USDA won’t have as much money in the future, it needs more flexibility to run its programs.”

He said USDA is trying to “create a proof point for this industry” through its program to encourage the growing of various crops for advanced biofuels. “We want to expand the choice of feedstocks to figure out which is the most efficient,” he said.

One audience member noted that while USDA is emphasizing cellulosic feedstocks, plants are being built in Brazil to use sugar and suggested that the United States should focus more on such carbohydrates. Vilsack noted that USDA has recently made a grant to a Florida university to study the use of sugar cane in biofuels.

Vilsack also announced that USDA, the Energy Department and the Navy Department will host an Advanced Biofuels Industry Roundtable in Washington on May 18, The roundtable will focus on efforts to accelerate the production of bio-based fuels for military and commercial purposes before requests for proposals are issued.

Vilsack said he is particularly excited about biofuels development because it puts rural America on the map. “America always succeeds when it pushes the envelope,” he added.