WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2016 - The clock is ticking this week for senators to reach agreement on a biotech labeling bill that can win enough Democratic support to reach President Obama’s desk.
Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts has been negotiating with his committee’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, on the legislation that lacks a key requirement she has been seeking - mandatory disclosure of GMO ingredients.
Roberts scheduled a markup for the bill for Thursday, effectively setting a deadline for the talks.
After Roberts released his draft Friday, Stabenow issued a statement saying she agreed with the “urgency” of acting on legislation and was committed to working on an agreement.
Roberts made clear he is open to modifying the legislation. but he told Agri-Pulse “we’ve got to expedite this. We have to provide certainty and help keep food affordable for working families.”
His bill would preempt state labeling laws, including the one in Vermont set to take effect July 1, and mandate that the Agriculture Department set standards for voluntary labeling of biotech foods. USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services also would be required to study consumer knowledge of agricultural biotechnology.
Food makers, retailers and farm groups applauded Roberts’ decision to move forward with the bill.
The Democratic senators from North Dakota, Minnesota and Michigan will likely be critical to moving the bill. The three states are the leading producers of sugar beets, most of which are genetically engineered.
David Berg, the president and CEO of American Crystal Sugar Co., a major supplier of beet sugar based in Moorhead, Minn., told Agri-Pulse his company has been trying to persuade Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Minnesota’s two Democratic senators to support the legislation.
“Going back to non-GMO is simply not an option anytime soon,” he said, citing the unavailability of conventional seed. Passing the preemption bill would relieve some of the pressure that his customers are feeling over the GMO issue, he said.
Meanwhile, the Senate is schedule to move forward Monday with confirmation of Robert Califf as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. The agency has been without a permanent commissioner for nearly a year. If the Senate approves cloture Monday evening, a final vote on the nomination could come Tuesday.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, put a hold on Califf’s nomination over the issue of labeling genetically engineered salmon. But Murkowski dropped her objection after the FDA recently agreed that it wouldn’t allow the fish to go to market until the agency issued labeling guidelines.
On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will testify before the House Agriculture Committee and is likely to be pressed on the slumping farm economy as well as the biotech issue.
Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, is at odds with Vilsack over his refusal to allow cottonseed to qualify for the new farm bill commodity programs. Vilsack insists he doesn’t have the legal authority to do so.
Also Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will question administration officials about their implementation of the Renewable Fuel Standard. The witnesses will include Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, and Howard Gruenspecht, deputy administrator of the Energy Information Administration.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Transforming Agriculture: Blending Technology and Tradition.” Sessions will cover a range of issues, including climate change mitigation; land tenure and transition; the potential benefits of environmental markets; and the security concerns of Big Data.
Here’s a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, Feb. 22
National Governors Association winter meeting. U.S. Trade Representative joins President Obama in meeting with the governors. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will moderate a governors panel on rural poverty, starting at 4:30 p.m., Washington Marriott Wardman Park
American Farm Bureau Federation advocacy conference, through Wednesday, Washington Hilton.
National Potato Council Fly-In, through Thursday, Mayflower Hotel.
5:30 p.m. - Senate cloture vote on nomination of Robert Califf as FDA commissioner.
Tuesday, Feb. 23
Vilsack will participate on chronic poverty for members of the National Association of Counties at 11:15 a.m., Washington Marriott Wardman Park
Vilsack will hold a media call with Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall on the impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Wednesday, Feb. 24
Thursday, Feb. 25
USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum, through Friday
Friday, Feb. 26
Ag Outlook Forum.
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