A provision in the 2002 Farm Bill stipulated that the U.S. government should buy “bio-based non-food products” if they’re about the same price as similar goods made with petroleum, but such purchases have only started to be made. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin was chairman of the U.S.Senate Ag Committee when that Farm Bill was written.

“The federal government spends, I thought I saw, $400 billion a year in buying things from the private sector. Well, a lot of that is buying petroleum-based products that can be made from renewable resources,” Harkin says. The list of available “bio-based” alternatives is growing and Harkin says they’re less costly in the long run because petroleum-based products create disposal problems while bio-based products degrade naturally when they’re buried as garbage.

Harkin would like states to embrace the concept. “I think every state government ought to say, look, state government ought to buy bio-based products as long as they’re equivalent in price, performance and availability,” Harkin says. “More and more products are coming on line that meet that definition.” As for the federal government Harkin says it wasn’t until former Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns (JOH-hanz — “a” as in hands) became U.S. Ag Secretary that the feds started buying many bio-based products.

Steve Devlin, an industrial specialist with the Center for Industrial Research at Iowa State University, has been testing bio-based products for the federal government to sort the legit from the fake. “We had some history back in the ’70s where people were producing some products in the last energy crisis, producing some bio-based products that maybe we’re quite up to snuf and so that left some bad tastes in people’s mouths when you buy a product that doesn’t work,” Devlin says. “That tends to make you not want to go back to that kind of a product in the future.”

Senator Harkin says this past month the U.S. Ag Secretary announced new rules that would put hundreds of new products on the “preferred” list of bio-based goods that federal agencies should purchase. The items range from construction products like insulting foam and carpeting to personal care items like lip balm and soap.