WASHINGTON, July 19, 2015 – The national debate over genetically engineered foods goes to the House floor this week with lawmakers scheduled to debate a bill that would bar states from requiring labels on foods containing GMOs.

Supporters of the bill expressed confidence that the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (HR 1599) would pass the House. However, ahead of the floor debate leaders of the House Agriculture Committee are fighting claims that the bill would also prevent states from banning the cultivation of biotech crops.

Also this week, the Senate will begin to move  a two-year extension of expired tax breaks, including the Section 179 expensing allowance and a series of tax credits and other incentives critical to the wind power and biofuel industry. The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to mark up the package on Tuesday.

It’s not clear where the House is headed on the tax issue. Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has been insisting publicly that the tax breaks be made permanent and hasn’t announced plans for a temporary extension.

On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Committee will hold an oversight hearing with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The issues Vilsack is likely to be questioned about include the requirement for conservation compliance that the 2014 farm bill extended to crop insurance. The House’s fiscal 2016 spending bill would delay the compliance requirement for crop insurance until 2016. But USDA reported recently that it believes there are only a relatively small number of growers who won’t be in compliance this year.

Coming revisions to the government’s dietary guidelines also have been a major concern on both sides of Capitol Hill. The Senate and House fiscal 2016 appropriations bills for USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services contain provisions intended to restrict what any new recommendations can say.

Committee members may also want to ask Vilsack about the GMO labeling bill. Both USDA and the Food and Drug Administration assisted in drafting the measure.

The biotech bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., is likely to be debated Thursday or Friday, according to the GOP leadership’s schedule.

The House Rules Committee will meet Tuesday afternoon to consider the rule for debating the measure. There is a 3 p.m. Monday deadline for filing amendments. The committee’s debate could be interesting in part because the four Democrats on the panel include an early co-sponsor of the bill, Alcee Hastings of Florida, as well as Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who spoke out against the bill during the House Agriculture Committee markup July 14.

The ranking member of House Agriculture, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, has predicted that there could be as many as 60 Democrat votes for the bill. They’ll be needed to help make up for some losses on the GOP side. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, acknowledged that concerns about the genetic engineering issue cross party lines.

“This isn’t really a partisan issue per se,” he said. “Everybody wants to know, and they believe they have a right to know” whether foods contain biotech ingredients. “We agree. It’s just how you deliver that knowledge. We think this is a good middle ground,” he added, referring to a section of the bill that would create a process for certifying foods as non-GMO. “We think it’s a good way to approach this issue.”

Thirty-eight additional co-sponsors signed onto the bill last week, bringing the total to 106, after the bill was approved by Conaway’s committee.

Food companies and agribusiness groups, who are being represented by the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, say the legislation must be enacted this year. Vermont passed a mandatory GMO labeling law that is set to take effect in 2016 as long as it survives a court challenge.

The bill has gone through a series of drafts as supporters sought in part to address concerns raised by organic food producers. Negotiations continued on the bill even after it was approved last week by the House Agriculture Committee.

One of the changes made to the bill before last week’s House Agriculture markup would require that milk labeled as non-GMO be produced from dairy cattle fed only non-GMO grain. Another revision would deem that certified organic products automatically meet the non-GMO standard.

But even with those changes the Organic Trade Association (OTA) still had several additional concerns, including how the bill would align with organic standards and the fact that the bill leaves out cotton, salmon, vitamins, supplements, enzymes and microorganisms.

The Senate Agriculture Committee isn’t likely to take up the labeling issue until after the August recess. Committee members and staff are struggling this month to come to agreement on three major issues: the future of the country-of-origin-labeling law, reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

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Here's a list of agriculture or rural related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, July 20.

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

BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology, in Montreal, through July 22.

Tuesday, July 21 

10 a.m. – Senate Finance Committee markup of tax extenders bill, 215 Dirksen.

10 a.m. – Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration enforcement, 226 Dirksen.

5 p.m. – House Rules Committee meeting to consider rule for the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act, Capitol H-313.

Wednesday, July 22

10 a.m. – House Agriculture Committee oversight hearing on USDA, with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. – House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the “social cost” of carbon, 1324 Longworth.

10 a.m. - Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on the nomination of Marie Therese Dominguez to be administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, 253 Russell.

11:30 a.m. – Annual hot dog lunch hosted by North American Meat Institute, Rayburn courtyard.

Thursday, July 23

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

10 a.m. – House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on the Renewable Fuel Standard, 2318 Rayburn.

Noon – House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Export-Import Bank, 2154 Rayburn.

Noon – Cato Institute hosts forum on “The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century,” 1000 Massachusetts Ave.

2 p.m. – House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Mexican energy reforms, 2200 Rayburn.

Friday, July 24

9 a.m. – USDA releases Food Price Outlook.

(Updated at 9:45 a.m. Monday)


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