Washington Week Ahead: Senate faces historic debate over GMO labeling

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 3, 2016 - The Senate this week will decide the fate of a landmark compromise on biotech labeling, with food and agriculture looking to preserve the large bipartisan majority that supported a pivotal procedural move to bring up the legislation.

In another historic step this week, the House is expected to clear the Senate-passed Global Food Security Act, which would cement President Obama's legacy in reshaping international food and agricultural aid.  

The Senate's GMO legislation would void Vermont's GMO labeling law, which took effect Friday. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders vowed in his home state on Friday that he would keep trying to stop the legislation, but his options are running out.

A crucial cloture vote, which requires a 60 votes, is likely Wednesday when the Senate returns from the Independence Day recess. Assuming the cloture motion is approved, there could as many as 30 hours of debate permitted before the Senate can move to a final vote on the bill.

A procedural vote last week suggested the bill is likely to have the necessary support to advance. The Senate voted 68-29 last Wednesday to move to the legislation. Sixteen Democrats and Maine independent Angus King joined 51 of the chamber's 54 Republicans in supporting the procedural move.

Lets Talk Food

The Democrats included the Agriculture Committee's ranking member, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who crafted the compromise during weeks of negotiations with the committee's chairman, Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

Some consumer activists are appealing to senators to kill the legislation, which would allow digital disclosure of biotech ingredients, because it falls short of the mandatory on-pack labeling required by Vermont's law.

In a letter to senators Friday, Consumers Union cited the Food and Drug Administration's comments on the legislation to support the group's contention that the Senate bill would exempt many food products from disclosure, including oils and sweeteners and biotech crops developed through newer techniques.

But the Agriculture Department, which would have to implement the law rather than FDA, said in a statement to Agri-Pulse that the bill provides the authority for highly refined sugars and oils to be brought into the program. USDA also said that biotech traits developed through techniques such as gene editing also would fall under the national disclosure standards.

“All told, the draft legislation provides authority to require more than 24,000 additional products in the disclosure program than the Vermont law and will help to avoid a patchwork of state regulations that may confuse consumers and increase food costs,” USDA said.

The bill would still need to pass the House before it could go to Obama for his signature. Both chambers will be out of session from July 15 until September.

The Global Food Security Act, which the House will vote on Tuesday, would authorize for the first time the Feed the Future initiative, a $1-billion-a-year effort to bolster agricultural production and reduce malnutrition in some of the world's poorest countries.

The legislation “will help prevent starvation and malnutrition and avoid stunting, so children can grow into healthy young adults and lead productive lives. It will also help people in the developing world-especially women and small farm operators-lift themselves out of poverty,” said Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who has championed Feed the Future.

The legislation also would write into law the Emergency Food Security Program (EFSP), an account that the U.S. Agency for International Development has been using to avoid restrictions on Food for Peace, which requires the use of U.S.-grown commodities.

EFSP, which the agency funds out of its international disaster assistance account, allowed USAID to start buying regionally produced commodities or to provide cash vouchers to people so they could buy food locally. It has been used heavily to feed refugees of the Syrian crisis.

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A House-passed version of the bill authorized Feed the Future for only one year and didn't include the EFSP.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, initially had misgivings about the Senate version of the bill, because of the EFSP authorization that Senate champions portray as a step toward broader food aid reform.  But sources say he signed off on passage of the legislation after getting assurances that the reforms won't be extended to Food for Peace.

The bill would authorize Feed the Future through fiscal 2018 and require development of a government-wide “global food security strategy” to address food and nutrition needs in target countries and ensure that they become self-supporting. The bill also would set detailed requirements for USAID to report on the initiative's progress.

The House also is expected on Tuesday to give congressional final approval to the Foreign Assistance Transparency and Accountability Act, which would write into law standards for reporting on and evaluating a range of foreign aid programs, including Food for Peace, Feed the Future and the EFSP.

The Senate-passed bill's transparency requirements follow reporting procedures that the Obama administration has already undertaken, said David Saldivar, Oxfam America's policy and advocacy manager for aid effectiveness.

Here's a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:

Monday, July 4

Agricultural trade negotiator Darci Vetter is in Sao Paulo, Brazil, through Thursday for the Global Agribusiness Forum.

Federal holiday

Tuesday, July 5

4 p.m. - USDA releases Crop Progress report.

Wednesday, July 6

10 a.m. - House Agriculture Committee hearing on error rates and anti-fraud measures in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, “A Review of EPA's Regulatory Activity During the Obama Administration: Energy and Industrial Sectors,” 2322 Rayburn.

10:30 a.m. - House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee markup of fiscal 2017 bill, Capitol H-140.

3 p.m. - House Judiciary subcommittee hearing, “Assessing the Obama Years: OIRA and Regulatory Impacts on Jobs, Wages and Economic Recovery,” 2226 Rayburn.

Thursday, July 7

9 a.m. - House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee markup of fiscal 2017 bill, 2358-C Rayburn.

10 a.m.- House Natural Resources subcommittee oversight hearing, "State Perspectives on BLM's Draft Planning 2.0 Rule,” 1324 Longworth.

12:30 p.m. - Libertarian running mates, former Govs. Gary Johnson and William Weld, speak at National Press Club luncheon.

Friday, July 8

8:30 a.m. - USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.

#30

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