According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a “biobased product” is a commercial or industrial product (either from food or feed) that utilizes biological products or renewable domestic agricultural (plant, animal, or marine ) or forest materials (often referred to as “biomass”).1 Since food and biomass are both derived from biological sources, there is the possibility for competition
However, while concerns about competition between food and biomass are real and growing, and there is no doubt that higher non-food sector demand for crops is contributing to higher prices, there is no evidence that bioplastics are currently reducing food. There is relatively small demand for these feedstocks and biomass is often grown on acreage that isn’t being used for food production. Even in the case of corn – which is the primary feedstock for bioplastics currently – the amount of corn used in bioplastics is quite small – less than .5% of the total US corn market.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there is more food per capita on the global scale than ever before and the problem of food insecurity is attributed primarily to lack of infrastructure, political unrest, access to capital, and economic issues. Rather than competition with food, concerns about the use of corn in bioplastics are more focused today on the significant environmental impacts of corn production, which the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative seeks to address through the Working Landscapes Certificates program.
The bioplastics sector can avoid both the environmental issues associated with production of corn and other annual crops as well as concerns about potential impacts on food security by switching to perennial biomass crops and agricultural or processing co-products or residues as feedstocks. Perennial biomass crops, which include grasses and fast-growing trees, offer multiple benefits compared to current bioplastic feedstocks, new markets for farmers, potentially much lower greenhouse gas emissions from crop production, less need for fertilizers and pesticides, and better soil and water quality.
Biobased feedstocks from biomass co-products, such as poultry feathers or food scraps from food production, that currently have little value or are considered waste value would be ideal. This would increase their economic value while reducing waste and providing additional income streams to farmers and processors.
Examples of feedstocks used for making biobased products include:
Derived from Plants – Corn • Tapioca • Wheat • Canola Oil • Bagasse • Soy
Derived from Fungi – Mushrooms
Derived from Animals – Poultry feathers • Manure
Derived from Forests – Fallen palm leaves/areca leaves • Wood
1United States Department of Agriculture, Departmental Regulation #5023-002. Online: http://www.ocio.usda.gov/directives/doc/DR5023-002.htm. April 2005.