Vilsack: Biofuels Are Key to Restoring Our National Values
We’ve all heard about the role of biofuels in reducing reliance on foreign oil, enhancing national security, creating jobs, promoting national prosperity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in an eloquent address to the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference held recently in Washington, D.C., cited these and more in his keynote address before the more than 500 conference delegates. But he also spoke of an overlooked role for biofuels: as a preserver of American values.
Vilsack noted that while much of the American population is focused on personal gain, farmers by the very nature of their occupation recognize that prosperity is a two-way street: their livelihood depends on conserving and protecting natural resources such as soil and water through those venerated American values of hard work, sacrifice, patience, self-discipline, prudence and thrift. The nation was founded and built upon agricultural values in which the role of stewardship plays a paramount role, the secretary said, noting that the agricultural community’s contribution to the nation — for instance, in terms of military service — has always been disproportionate to its numbers. (Note: I am paraphrasing his remarks.) The perpetuation of these values is now threatened by the aging of the farming community, he said. According to a recent agricultural census, the fastest-growing age group of farmers is the cohort over 65. But all of this may be changing. The growing biofuel industry promises to revitalize the farming community, attracting new blood, bringing new wealth to dying communities and restoring the importance of the heartland as a repository of American values whose influence extends throughout the country. In other words, biofuels could create a comeback for rural America.
If the trends are any indicator, Vilsack may be right. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop is already devoted to the production of ethanol, which by mandate makes up 10 percent of the fuel we use in our cars. Biofuels are already enriching agricultural incomes. And that’s without even taking into consideration the potential impact of the cultivation of advanced (non-food) biofuel crops such as switch grass and Miscanthus that the industry is now focused on for use as feedstocks in the production of fuels, chemicals, plastics, fragrances and flavors.
The “Go Big. Stay Strong” theme of the conference was a reference to the commercialization of biofuels, with “strong” referring to the danger of becoming overextended on the path to expansion. But “strong” can have another meaning as well: namely, the role of biofuels in making the country stronger. In Vilsack’s view, biofuels hold the promise of strengthening the values of the nation so that it can continue to serve as a beacon to the world. If he’s right, the restoration of those values lies as much with the revitalization of the imperiled farming community as it does with changes in behavior or beliefs fostered by government, religion or the social order.
- Stefanie Matteson