WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2016 - Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts will try again this week to get an agreement with Democrats on legislation to head off state GMO labeling laws.

The committee markup of the bill is set for Tuesday after being delayed from last week. The official reason for the postponement was that the committee’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, needed time to shepherd a bill dealing with the Flint, Michigan, water crisis on the Senate floor, but the rescheduling also gave Roberts and her more time to win Democratic support for the biotech legislation.

One of the key Democratic senators that the industry needs, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, says she’s eager to support a bill that would address the concerns of her sugar beet producers while also meeting the needs of consumers.

“We’re working very hard and encouraging our leadership to come up with a bill that can pass the Senate,” she said in a Agri-Pulse Open Mic interview.

Heitkamp didn’t get into the specifics of a compromise bill, but she made it clear that the voluntary disclosure approach in Roberts’ draft bill didn’t go far enough. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to sell that,” she said. Roberts’ bill would preempt state laws and require the Agriculture Department to set standards for voluntary disclosure of biotech ingredients.

Sugar beet growers in her home state would likely be among the first to be affected by Vermont’s law. Almost all of the sugar beets grown in the United States are genetically engineered for herbicide tolerance, but there is no biotech sugarcane, which means that companies that want to avoid a GMO label would have to switch from beet to cane sugar or another sweetener.  The Hershey Co. already is making the switch.

Also this week, the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will hold an unusual hearing on the state of the farm economy that will include testimony about the situation facing cotton farmers after a plunge in the global price of the fiber.

Hearings by Appropriations panels normally focus on department spending proposals, but this hearing comes as cotton growers are pushing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to provide new subsidies for cotton producers. The chairman of the full Appropriations committee, Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is a key ally of the industry.

During a House Agriculture Committee hearing last week, Vilsack reiterated his position that he didn’t have the legal authority to designate cottonseed as an oilseed under the Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage programs. However, he told reporters afterward that the department was working on a cost-share program for ginning.

The farm economy, biotech labeling and trade also are likely to be on the agenda when Vilsack and Darci Vetter, the administration’s chief agricultural trade negotiator, speak in New Orleans Friday at Commodity Classic, the annual convention and trade show for the National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Sorghum Producers and the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

Also this week, Vilsack will use an appearance before the 2016 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference on Monday to announce an effort to improve access to healthful foods through the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition program.

On Tuesday, school nutrition directors from around the country will be on Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers to pass a bill reauthorizing school meal programs as well as WIC.

The School Nutrition Association, which is holding its annual legislative action conference, has endorsed tweaks to sodium and whole grain standards that are included in a bill the Senate Agriculture Committee approved in January, but the group also will be asking lawmakers for a large, 35-cent per-meal increase in the federal reimbursement rate for school meals.

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

Monday, Feb. 29

National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, Omni Shoreham.

School Nutrition Association annual legislative action conference, Marriott Marquis.

ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, through March 2, Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, National Harbor, Maryland.

9 a.m. - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announces new efforts to improve access to healthy foods for women, infants and children, National Anti-Hunger conference, Omni Shoreham. 

Tuesday, March 1

Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Scuse speaks to the Missouri Rice Producers meeting, Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference.

School Nutrition Association conference.

8:30 a.m. - Aides to the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees discuss the congressional trade agenda at a Washington International Trade Association forum, Ronald Reagan Building.

9 a.m. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, delivers keynote address at ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. Former Vice President Al Gore speaks at 9:30 and Energy Secretary Moniz is scheduled to speak at 3:20 p.m.

9:30 a.m. House Appropriations Committee hearing on Energy Department budget request. Energy Secretary Moniz to testify.

10 a.m. - House Natural Resources Committee hearing on budget request with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, 1324 Longworth.

10 a.m. - Senate Agriculture Committee markup of the Biotechnology Labeling Solutions bill, 328-A Russell.

2 p.m. - House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on “Voluntary Conservation: Utilizing Innovation and Technology,” 1300 Longworth.

2:30 p.m. - Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the state of the farm economy, 116 Dirksen.

2:30 p.m. - Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the fiscal 2017 budget for USAID and the State Department, 419 Dirksen.

Wednesday, March 2

Jennifer Prescott, the assistant U.S. trade representative for the environment and natural resources, takes part in negotiations on the WTO environmental goods agreement.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture Committee hearing on “Past, Present, and Future of SNAP: Examining State Options,” 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Energy Department budget request. Energy Secretary Moniz to testify.

2 p.m. - Senate Agriculture Appropriations hearing with FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, 124 Dirksen.

2:30 p.m. - Senate Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, 138 Dirksen.

3 p.m. - Leaders of National Wildlife Federation, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and others announce strategy for preventing Endangered Species Act listings, National Press Club.

Thursday, March 3

Commodity Classic, New Orleans.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman meets with European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen and participates in a panel at the IMF’s High Level Conference on Asia and Latin America.

9:30 a.m. - USTR-chaired Generalized System of Preferences Subcommittee of the Trade Policy Staff Committee holds two-day public hearing on GSP product-related issues, 1724 F Street NW.

10 a.m. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Energy Department budget request.

10 a.m. - House Interior-Environment Appropriations hearing on the Bureau of Land Management, B-308 Rayburn.

10:15 a.m. - House Agriculture Appropriations hearing on USDA’s marketing and regulatory programs, 2362-A Rayburn.

2 p.m. - House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on bills involving management of national forests and other public lands, 1334 Longworth.

Friday, March 4

Vilsack and U.S. agricultural trade negotiator Darci Vetter speak at Commodity Classic.

9:30 a.m. - Generalized System of Preferences Subcommittee of the Trade Policy Staff Committee hearing.


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