Let's Say No to Farming Out Our National Security

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in The Commercial Appeal on February 8th, 2013.

America moves forward when people from different backgrounds work together to achieve a common goal. Recently, the agricultural and business communities have joined the military on a mission for a common goal: developing advanced biofuels that can supply our armed services with new made-in-America fuel sources.

By 2020, the Navy and Air Force have set a goal to get half of their fuel from clean, advanced biofuel produced by American companies and supplied with home-grown feedstocks that don't cut into our food supply.

President Barack Obama and his administration have been stalwart supporters of the Defense Department's biofuel efforts. But in the face of politically driven criticism, we need even more vocal support from the most visible bully pulpit in the world.

When Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday, we hope he will make developing and deploying advanced biofuels a critical part of his plan to move America forward. We hope he will stress to Congress — as he did in his inaugural address to the American people — that our country should lead the transition to sustainable energy sources like biofuels, not resist it.

We are a farmer from west-central Missouri and a retired Marine general from western Tennessee. From our perspectives, we see firsthand how different segments of society benefit from advanced biofuel investments. We see that while the national security implications are enormous, so too are the opportunities for American farmers and businesses.

There are three key things to keep in mind when thinking about the military and biofuels:

First, our military is currently dependent on a single source of fuel — petroleum. Military leaders cite this as a strategic vulnerability, especially when much of the single fuel source we rely on comes from the Middle East and other volatile regions that also are home to regimes hostile to the United States.

Second, advanced biofuel costs are rapidly declining. This can shield the Pentagon's budget from long-term exposure to swings in the price of oil. The Department of Defense estimates a $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil adds $130 million to fuel costs. In 2007, the price of a barrel of oil climbed more than $35, costing taxpayers billions.

And third, powering the defense and the transportation sectors with biofuel from American-grown crops expands our economy and can do so without competing with our food supply. According to a study by Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), military investments in biofuel alone could generate more than $10 billion in economic activity and create more than 14,000 jobs by 2020.

For the agriculture industry, advanced biofuel represents a new revenue stream. Farmers can grow feedstock like sugar beets during crop rotations when fields normally lie fallow, or they can squeeze profits from crop waste like corn stalks and wheat straw that would otherwise go unused and unsold.

The industry's economic potential is enormous. In Tennessee, the Department of Transportation is helping develop retail biofuel filling stations less than 100 miles apart along interstates and major highways. And near Tupelo, Miss., two companies, BlueFire Renewables and Enerkem, are each building biofuel production facilities.

What's more, clean energy companies in biofuels and other fields can create good jobs for returning veterans. As we've found through an energy jobs program for veterans being pioneered in Tennessee by the Crockett Policy Institute and Memphis Bioworks, our fighting men and women already understand how clean fuels work, and why it's important for our national security to build a clean, domestic energy industry.

The bottom line: We need to say no to farming out our national security and we need to say yes to America's farmers and businesses.

Hopefully, we'll hear our nation's commander in chief say the same when he addresses Congress.

Steve Flick is CEO of Flick Seed Co. in Kingsville, Mo., which produces native grass seed for biomass production in Missouri and Kansas. Lt. Gen. John Castellaw (U.S. Marine Corps, retired) is a farmer and president of the Crockett Policy Institute in Alamo, Tenn.

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