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Senator: Is federal bioenergy program undercutting foresters?

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is questioning whether a U.S. Department of Agriculture bio-based marketing program amounts to a bias against traditional forest products and whether such policies are fair.

Cochran broached the topic at a Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to review the FY2014 budget request for the USDA.

The USDA BioPreferred product labeling program offers certified labels to manufacturers for products made of renewable plant, animal, marine or forestry materials. The label also grants these products federal procurement preference, which means the federal agencies are encouraged to purchase them to the maximum extent practicable.

Cochran last week asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack whether the BioPreferred program represents “a bias in preferring bio-based market program items over traditional forest products.”

The senator’s inquiry was based on concerns that the program’s “innovative standards” guidelines automatically disregard the biobased content of products, like forest products.  The arbitrary nature of the standards is seen as unfairly excluding these products from the marketplace for goods comprised of renewable resources.

“How can bamboo be more renewable than pine? They are both the same in terms of renewability, aren’t they?” Cochran asked.

Vilsack said BioPreferred program does not reflect a policy bias, but is intended “to support new and innovative opportunities on the theory that matured industries don’t necessarily need a leg up or assistance.” He conceded that the program works to the detriment of more traditional materials.

The BioPreferred program, created in the 2002 Farm Bill, excludes products like forest-based goods that were in existence before 1972. The program has suspended issuing new certified labels under the current extension of the Farm Bill.

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