WASHINGTON, Sept. 2, 2015 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says that backers of a bill to preempt state GMO labeling laws don’t have the votes to move the legislation in the Senate. But he says the politics could shift after one or more state labeling laws were to take effect. Barring a court ruling against it, a Vermont labeling requirement will be the first to become law next year.

 In an exclusive interview with Agri-Pulse, Vilsack said that while a federal preemption law “is not absolutely essential,” it would “provide greater certainty to the marketplace.”

USDA provided technical assistance to House drafters of the Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (HR 1599), which passed the House 275-150 in July. In addition to preempting state GMO labeling requirements, including Vermont’s, the bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., would also set up a process for labeling foods as non-biotech. The Vermont law is set to take effect July 1, 2016.

 “If the Vermont law goes into effect, then the marketplace has to make certain decisions about what happens in Vermont, and those decisions may accelerate what Congress has to do or may basically give Congress the ability to take a pass on it. We just dont know at this point what the marketplace is going to do,” Vilsack said.

“What we do know is that if we have multiple states doing different actions of this nature, youre going to create such confusion in the marketplace that costs are going to go up, supplies are going to be limited and it will be chaotic. It doesnt have to be,” he said.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., has been working on a Senate version of the Pompeo bill but has yet to introduce it. The Senate Agriculture Committee was expected to have a hearing on the issue this month though nothing has been scheduled yet.

The committee’s chairman, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the panel’s ranking Democrat, “are very committed to trying to figure out a way to get to a point where you have that uniform message to (give) to the market and for consumers, (while) respecting consumers’ right to know,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack will continue to make the case that embedding information about genetically engineered ingredients in product bar codes would adequately inform consumers about biotech content without scaring them away from the foods as labeling might do.

“GMO production is not about nutrition and is not about known risks,” Vilsack said. “And that is the challenge here. To create labeling requirements that may end up … unintentionally or intentionally conveying an impression about a product because it was produced in a certain way – ‘this may be unsafe’ -- you have to be cautious about it. Thats just not supported by the science. The science tells us that theres nothing in terms of known health hazards associated with GMO. (So) why would you create that impression or risk the creation of that impression?“At the same time, it is hard for retail food processing businesses that are in the businesses of catering to consumers, it is hard for them to be against the consumers right to know, so you have to figure out a way…”

During the wide-ranging interview, Vilsack also talked about the congressional effort to reauthorize child nutrition standards, the challenge of reducing farm runoff, the idea of means testing crop insurance, and a proposal of his own for reforming the capital gains tax to help beginning farmers obtain land. Here are the highlights:Common Ground on Child Nutrition Law?Vilsack also said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that Congress will reach agreement on a new child nutrition law. “I think that there is an opportunity here, given the flexibility that weve shown in the past, to find common ground in terms of the standards to make sure that we dont take a step back, that we continue to make a commitment to our children and their health and their future,” he said in Monday’s interview.

But the existing law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, is set to expire Sept. 30, and no consensus bill has emerged yet on either side of the Capitol. There is strong resistance among congressional Democrats and the Obama administration to Republican efforts to roll back or soften the standards that USDA set under the authority of the expiring law.

 The current standards stay in place even if the law expires, but a Republican president and Republican Congress could easily undo them as soon as 2017. Passing a new law now with bipartisan support would likely result in tweaks to the standards but it would ensure that the basic policy continues in force for years to come.

The reality is if Sept. 30 comes and goes, we still have the programs in place, by virtue of how theyve been authorized in the past, but it would be nice to have a reaffirmation of this effort, said Vilsack, who will be speaking on the issue next week at the National Press Club.

 Senators Roberts and Stabenow have been trying to reach agreement on a new bill, and the Senate Agriculture Committee has scheduled a markup for Sept. 17. Vilsack said the department has been working closely with committee staff on development of a bill. 

Vilsack seemed open to extending flexibility on issues such as sodium to give food manufacturers time to develop lower-sodium alternatives. He also is suggesting that more funding could help ease the passage of a new bill. He specially cited the summer feeding programs as needing more money. “One of the big challenges will be whether Congress can identify additional resources that can go into expanding” that program, he said.

 Federal reimbursement rates to schools may be an issue, too. On Tuesday, while answering a question at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress about the prospects for a nutrition bill, he said there is a “need to have additional resources.”

 Voluntary action – not regulation to address water quality woes. Vilsack believes the water-quality problems pinned on American farmers can be solved with voluntary conservation measures if provided enough time and patience.

“I think voluntary action does work,” and the USDA won’t be in the business of regulating folks anytime soon, Vilsack said. “We are really focused on voluntary, incentive-based efforts and I think that’s been successful and we’re going to continue as long as Congress gives us the flexibility and the resources.”

The department’s voluntary programs have made improvements in soil health and water quality and the numbers prove it, Vilsack argued. Between 2009 and 2014, voluntary programs administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have reduced nitrogen runoff by over 3.5 billion pounds, phosphorus runoff by 700 million pounds and net greenhouse gas emissions by over 360 million metric tons, Vilsack said.

The key to these voluntary efforts’ effectiveness is the use of conservation practices that are proven to prevent nutrients from leaving farmland, he said. Those practices – such as cover crops, conservation tillage and buffer strips – are incentivized through USDA grants and cost-shares, not by the threat of hefty fines.Vilsack said programs like the private-public Regional Conservation Partnership Program “bring more resources into conservation” in a “collaborative” and “comprehensive way” on a much larger scale than was possible five or 10 years ago.

 “I think we’ll also see a dramatic impact of precision agriculture,” he said. “If you take a look at the amount of crops that are being produced today, and you look at inputs relative to crops being produced, inputs are down.”

 Many stakeholders, however, are not in agreement that voluntary action will be enough to prevent excess nutrient runoff. For example, Bill Stowe, the CEO of Des Moines Water Works – the utility that is currently suing three upstream counties for costs associated with denitrifying water – was quoted in Agri-Pulse’s Aug. 26 newsletter saying voluntary conservation just wouldn’t cut it.

 “I’m hard pressed to come up with a single environmental improvement that has happened through volunteerism,” Stowe said. “Drinking water is hardly the area that we want to be relying on the best wishes and good motives of those upstream.”

Vilsack responded to Stowe’s comments with a staunch, “I don’t think so.”

 “The answer to the Des Moines Water Works litigation is a concerted effort involving the state, federal and local governments” and other stakeholders on a collaborative plan, Vilsack argued.

 “We have to be patient” when it comes to seeing improvements, he said. “The reality is we didn’t get into this circumstance in terms of water quality over the last couple of years,” and regulation won’t get us out of it any quicker than voluntary action would, he added.

 Beginning farmers need different types of help. Vilsack thinks it’s time to reshape the debate over how to help beginning farmers and ranchers with access to land, saying the problem might be better addressed through changes in the tax code. Using the farm he and his wife own in southern Iowa as an example, he said he would “potentially consider” selling the land to a beginning farmer or rancher, but he is wary of the capital gains tax since the farm has “appreciated significantly since we obtained it in 1992.” Passing his farm on to his sons might be simpler and would incur less tax liability.

That’s because the tax would be figured only on the increase in value from the time of his death, what is known as “stepped-up basis,” rather than the time it was originally purchased. 

 “If you’re truly interested in making sure that we have access to land, then there needs to be a very serious conversation about the capital gains tax, stepped-up basis, and creative ways to help beginning farmers and ranchers access land at a rate that’s affordable without penalizing the folks who own the land and asking them out of the goodness of their heart to make it available,” Vilsack said.

 Vilsack suggested a fix to the tax code that would allow “the basis (to be) transferred so I would be in a position to sell it for a little bit less to that beginning farmer but at the end of the day I’d end up with more money in my pocket,” but the current tax laws “don’t provide that,” he said.

However, he noted that this type of fix is “a little harder because you’re talking about tax policy and you’re talking about revenue and so forth.”

 In January, the administration released a plan to eliminate the stepped-up basis, but it was met with stiff Republican opposition, including from Vilsack’s fellow Iowan, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who called the plan “confiscation.”

Editor’s Note: Philip Brasher, Whitney Forman-Cook & Spencer Chase contributed to this article.

(Updated 6 p.m.) 


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