WASHINGTON, March 16, 2016 - The future of agricultural biotechnology could be on the line Wednesday as the Senate takes a crucial vote on legislation that would preempt state GMO labeling laws. But backers of the bill, led by Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., were unsure on Tuesday that they would have enough Democratic support to get the necessary 60 votes to break a filibuster.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, refused to agree to a compromise disclosure plan that Roberts has offered to attract Democratic votes. 

She has been holding out for a requirement that all food products with biotech ingredients be labeled with either a QR code, which can be read by smartphones, or a special GMO symbol similar to what’s used in Brazil, according to sources.

“I can’t sell that,” Roberts told Agri-Pulse about the provisions Stabenow wanted. “For every Democrat I might get, I lose more Republicans. That’s the conundrum we face. Plus, it’s not the right thing to do.”

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., was trying Tuesday to come up with an alternative that might bring on Stabenow and the Democrats. One Senate aide said the standoff between Roberts and Stabenow appeared to have become a “game of chicken” on Tuesday afternoon.

Roberts’ proposal would allow food makers to disclose GMOs in a variety of ways, including through call centers and websites as well as scanning technology, and companies wouldn’t be required to do anything unless a voluntary disclosure system fails to cover at least 70 percent of the food supply within three years.

Stabenow announced her rejection of Roberts’ proposal in a statement Tuesday morning, dismissing his plan as “nothing more than the status quo for consumers who want information about the food they are purchasing.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was said to be intent on holding the cloture vote on Wednesday, even if it wasn’t clear that the motion could pass. The move would put pressure on Democrats who might fear being blamed for the bill’s failure.

If the vote does go against the bill, McConnell is prepared to vote “no” so that he can ask for reconsideration later, Roberts said. That’s what happened last summer when Democrats initially blocked progress on a Trade Promotion Authority measure.

Industry officials say that as many as eight to 10 Democrats may be needed to move the GMO legislation since at least two Republicans may vote against it, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Two other GOP senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, have been on the campaign trail, even though Rubio suspended his campaign Tuesday night. As many as 15 Democratic votes were believed to be in play.

As the negotiations continued Tuesday, the American Farm Bureau Federation wrote senators, saying that a “vote against this measure is a vote against consumers, against American farmers and ranchers, and against more affordable, productive agriculture.” The letter goes on to say that the bill must pass before the start of the two-week Easter recess, since time is running out before Vermont’s first-in-the-nation labeling law would take effect in July

The Senate’s leading advocate for mandatory, on-package GMO labeling, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., accused Republicans of trying to hide Tuesday’s floor debate from the public and the media by scheduling it on a day with five presidential primaries. “Theyre not paying attention to this egregious proposal to take away states’ rights and consumer rights,” Merkley said.

Merkley, who earlier introduced legislation that would require biotech foods to be labeled with either a symbol or special wording, also denounced the Roberts’ proposal as the “Monsanto DARK Act 2.0.” DARK stands for “denying Americans the right to know.”

Merkley and other opponents criticized the industry’s disclosure methods as inadequate. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said of Roberts’ plan, “Youre trying to replace what Vermont is doing with nothing, and thats not right.”


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