WASHINGTON, Jan. 9, 2015 – A senator who has clashed with the agricultural biotech industry has been named the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations panel that writes budgets for the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration.

In 2013, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., unsuccessfully tried to use the debate over the farm bill to repeal an appropriations provision that critics dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act.

He called the provision “an outrageous example of a special interest loophole," adding that the "provision nullifies the actions of a court that is enforcing the law to protect farmers, the environment and public health. That is unacceptable.”

The provision, backed by the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee’s top Republican, Roy Blunt of Missouri, was intended to ensure that farmers could continue cultivating genetically engineered crops while their federal approval was being challenged in the courts. The provision has since expired.

As ranking Democrat on Agriculture Appropriations, Merkley will be well-positioned to resist pro-biotech policy riders favored by Republicans on the panel. USDA and FDA share regulation of biotech products with EPA. Republicans have not finalized their subcommittee chairmanships. Blunt, who represents Monsanto's home state, could take over another panel, leaving Agriculture to be chaired by someone else, such as Jerry Moran of Kansas or John Hoeven of North Dakota.

Merkley also has opposed the possible approval by FDA of a genetically engineered salmon.

Colin O'Neil, director of government affairs with the Center for Food Safety, which has led several lawsuits challenging USDA biotech approvals, called Merkley “one of the food movement’s strongest allies in Congress.

“We expect to see lot of important food issues to come through the appropriations committee this year, from provisions related to federal nutrition rules and food stamps, to country of origin labeling and food safety, to GE food labeling and support for small farmers. His leadership will be needed now more than ever to address many critical issues facing our food system, as well as defend against attacks on our regulatory safeguards and gains made over the years.” 

Merkley, who successfully pushed for an amendment to the 2014 farm bill to improve crop insurance for organic growers, considers himself an ally of his state's farmers, and last fall the Oregon Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau Federation named him a winner of their “Friend of Farm Bureau" award.

“I’ve gone to bat for our family farmers and ranchers in the Senate and I will keep fighting for them, because Oregon wouldn’t be the same without our farming and ranching families,” Merkley said in a press release announcing the award.

Merkley has also worked to limit trucking exemptions on farmers.