WASHINGTON, July 12, 2015 –A long-anticipated congressional debate over biotech foods kicks off this week as the House Agriculture Committee takes up a bill that would block state GMO labeling laws.

It would the first time that a committee has taken action on the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act, whichRep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., first introduced in the last Congress, and the committee vote could clear the way for action soon in the full House.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has joint jurisdiction with Agriculture on the bill (HR 1599), but a source familiar with the development of the legislation says it's possible that panel could waive its right to consider the measure. The bill’s supporters were still trying to work out revisions in the bill last weekwith the aim of attracting additional sponsors.

The legislation, which currently has 68 cosponsors,including 14 Democrats, is becoming increasingly urgent for farmers, the biotech industry and food companies with Vermont’s state labeling law set to take effect in 2016 unless a court strikes it down.

The industry still faces an uphill battle in the Senate. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., has been preparing a companion Senate bill, but supporters have struggled to find a Democratic co-sponsor.

“We’re confident that the Senate will stand strong against efforts to block the consumer’s right to know,” said Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, an advocacy group fighting the Pompeo bill. “No one will be surprised if the House preempts state GMO labeling bills. The real battle has always been over the Senate.”

Several hundred members of the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association will be on Capitol Hill this week looking to find additional sponsors and support for the legislation. Both groups are holding annual meetings this week.

John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean grower in Illinois who chairs the GROWMARK cooperative, told an Energy and Commerce subcommittee in June that state labeling laws would force a “tremendous amount” of added time and expense on farmers by requiring them to keep GMO and non-GMO crops separate “from the seed to my farm, to the end-user.”

The legislation would preempt state labeling laws as well as set up a process for certifying products labeled as non-GMO. The legislation also would make mandatory federal safety reviews of new biotech crops. The review process at the Food and Drug Administration is now voluntary although routinely followed by companies.

Appropriations process stalls amid flag flap

There could be more time available on the House floor for the bill before the August recess. The appropriations process is grinding toward a standstill. House GOP leaders cancelled final votes on the Interior-Environment appropriations bill last Thursday to avoid a politically embarrassing debate over whether to allow Confederate flags to be flown in national cemeteries. The bill is nowhere on the House agenda for this week.

The GOP leadership had already left the fiscal 2016 Agriculture spending bill off the House agenda for the month, which would prevent lawmakers from putting forward amendments to roll back farm programs. The sugar program was certain to be a target.

The House, however, is likely to take up a California drought relief bill (HR 2898) approved last week by the Natural Resources Committee.

The bill would increase the amount of water being pumped from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers into California's agriculturally rich Central Valley. Much of the water in the delta formed by the rivers currently is dedicated to maintaining habitat for the Delta smelt and the Chinook salmon, two species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The bill likely has little future in the Senate in its current form. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., says several provisions would violate environmental law and primarily benefit large agribusinesses in the state. Her Democratic colleague, Barbara Boxer says the bill would “only reignite the water wars.”

Corn growers keep pressure on EPA

In addition to promoting the Pompeo bill this week, NCGA is sponsoring a Rally for Rural America on Wednesday to protest the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed biofuel mandates for 2014 through 2016.

NCGA is unhappy with EPA for lowering the mandate for corn ethanol below the 15 billion-gallon-a-year target set by the 2007 energy law. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and a House Democrat who hopes to join her in the Senate, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, are scheduled to appear at the rally. Duckworth is challenging Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

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

Monday, July 13

The School Nutrition Association holds its annual conference, in Salt Lake City, through July 15.

1:15 p.m. - Secretary Tom Vilsack will participate in a discussion about nutrition and rural development at the 2015 White House Conference on Aging.

4 p.m. – USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.

Tuesday, July 14

American Soybean Association legislative forum, Washington Court Hotel.

10 a.m. – House Agriculture Committee markup of the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. – House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on advancing commercial weather data, 2318 Rayburn.

10:15 a.m. – House Appropriations Committee marks up fiscal 2016 Homeland Security bill, 2359 Rayburn.

Wednesday, July 15

National Corn Growers Association annual Corn Congress, Capital Hilton.

9 a.m. – Farm Foundation forum on “Water Challenges for the Future,” National Press Club.

10 a.m. – House Agriculture Committee hearing on the 1890s land-grant universities, 1300 Longworth.

Noon – Rally for Rural America, sponsored by National Corn Growers Association, Upper Senate Park

1:30 p.m. – House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on “Past, Present, and Future of SNAP: Developing and Using Evidence-Based Solutions,” 1300 Longworth.

Thursday, July 16

NCGA’s Corn Congress.

Vilsack will provide remarks at the Library of Congress in honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Second Morrill Act, which directs some proceeds from public land sales to support land-grant colleges.

Vilsack hosts a National Stakeholder Forum via webinar to announce a new program to support renewable chemical and bio-based product manufacturing. 

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

10 a.m. – Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on forestry bills, 328A Russell.

2:45 p.m. – Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on forestry bills, 366 Dirksen.

Friday, July 17

No events currently scheduled.

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