WASHINGTON, June 24, 2016 - U.S. agriculture has reached a critical milestone with the Senate’s historic agreement on national disclosure standards for biotechnology. If enacted, the deal between Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow will allow disclosure through digital, smartphone codes as an option to wording or symbols on package labels. 

Just as importantly, plants and animals that are modified through the new techniques of genetic engineering, including gene editing, won’t be considered biotech. That means those products will be exempt from disclosure. That exemption won’t allow biotech companies to sidestep federal safety reviews for new, genetically modified traits, but it does protect the products from any stigma that might come from being labeled as genetically engineered. 

Roberts wasn’t overstating the significance of the deal when he declared that it “saved agricultural biotechnology.” 

The challenge now is to get floor time. The bill should have the 60 votes it will need to pass the Senate. Many Democrats are following Stabenow’s lead on the issue. Roberts has said he thought she could bring along as many as 15 to 20 Democratic votes. 

Stabenow almost certainly broadened support for the deal by insisting on mandatory disclosure standards and by including a provision that would allow certified organic products to be labeled as non-GMO. The Organic Trade Association praised the deal, citing both the mandatory standards and the non-GMO provision for organic products. 

But there is little time left for Congress to get the legislation to President Obama’s desk before lawmakers break for the party conventions in July and the August recess that follows. A GOP leadership aide said it will likely be hard to get a vote on the bill next week because of procedural hurdles. The Senate is scheduled to be out of session from July 15 until September. The House is expected to approve the legislation once it passes the Senate. 

Some activists are still fighting the agreement. Consumers Union criticized the relatively narrow definition of bioengineering as well as the lack of a requirement for on-package labeling. But Gary Hirschberg, chairman of the Just Label It coalition, issued a statement that seemed to concede that the agreement is going to become law. He said the fight will now “shift to the marketplace and to USDA.”

The agreement is expected to have broad support from farm and agriculture groups, although some say they still need to study the details. The American Farm Bureau Federation says it’s concerned that the mandatory disclosure could alarm consumers, but the group also said it’s important to avoid a patchwork of state labeling laws.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association called the legation a “commonsense solution for consumers, farmers and businesses” and urged the Senate to pass it quickly.

The American Soybean Association immediately began urging growers to contact their senators and urge them to support the bill. “E-mails and calls are needed to all 60 soy-state Senate offices repeatedly until this legislation passes,” ASA said in an alert to members. 

Agribusiness execs to meet Clinton campaign. Executives representing top agribusiness groups will be meeting with the Hillary Clinton campaign today in New York to go over the industry’s top policy concerns. The executives represent an informal collection of trade groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, CropLife America, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and major commodity organizations. 

The group is seeking a similar meeting with the Donald Trump campaign. The group has developed a series of policy papers that cover issues such as the farm bill, food safety and trade. 

Ruling sets back immigration reform, Obama says. President Obama says that comprehensive immigration reform – a major goal of farm groups – is less likely to happen anytime soon thanks to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on his executive actions.

The 4-4 ruling blocks the administration from moving forward with its plan to allow millions of illegal immigrants to legally work in the United States. Some in agriculture are concerned that the plan would leave them with fewer workers and no source of replacements. 

Farmers say what they need is a comprehensive immigration bill like the one that the Senate approved in 2013. The House refused to give the bill a vote. 

Obama said that “Congress is not going to be able to ignore America forever.  It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.”  

Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif renewed the group’s call for immigration reform. “Any reform measure should include provisions granting legal status to existing farmworkers and one that creates a new, more workable and market-oriented visa program to ensure a future flow of labor,” he said.

The United Farm Workers called the Supreme Court ruling a “setback for hardworking immigrant families.”

Brazilian pork and poultry industries desperate for feed. Brazil’s weak currency is driving farmers to sell their corn overseas. The mass grain exodus, together with a smaller than normal harvest, is pushing pork and poultry producers to cut production, according to USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

Brazil’s corn exports in the first several months of 2016 are already up by 138 percent from last year, and that has pushed domestic prices to record highs. In response, chicken production has dropped 10 percent and pork producers have reduced insemination rates by 15 percent.

USAID nominee approved. The Senate yesterday confirmed David Harden’s nomination to become USAID’s assistant administrator for democracy, conflict, and humanitarian assistance. Harden has been serving as mission director for the West Bank and Gaza. 

She said it. “Throughout this process I worked to ensure that any agreement would recognize the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe, while also making sure consumers have the right to know what is in their food. I also wanted a bill that prevents a confusing patchwork of 50 different rules in each state. This bill achieved all of those goals, and most importantly recognizes that consumers want more information about the foods they buy.” - Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. 

Sara Wyant and Bill Tomson contributed to this report. 


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