WASHINGTON, July 6, 2016 - In a landmark step for agricultural biotechnology, the Senate advanced a compromise on GMO disclosure that will preempt state labeling mandates and allow digital disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients.
The Senate voted 65-32 on Wednesday to limit debate on the legislation. Eighteen Democrats supported the cloture motion, which required 60 votes to be approved. Five Republicans voted against it.
A final vote, which will require just a simple majority, is expected Thursday evening, which would send the legislation to the House for final approval.
“This clears the pathway for a final vote on passage, and I remain optimistic sound science and affordable food will prevail,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "Both farmers and consumers deserve this certainty.”
The vote was interrupted briefly by several protesters in the gallery who threw money onto the Senate floor and shouted slogans such as “Stop taking Monsanto money!” One protester singled out the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Senate pages quickly cleared the floor of the money.
Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling requirements took effect July 1, and there is little time for the House to consider the measure before both chambers break at the end of next week for the national party conventions and then their annual August recess. Congress won’t return to work until September.
“We hope that once the Senate takes a final vote on the measure that the House will take it up and pass it -- and that the president will sign it—before Congress goes into recess for the party conventions,” said Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
In a last-minute boost for the bill just ahead of Wednesday’s vote, the United Food and Commercial Workers sent a letter to Senate leaders in support of the legislation. “By creating a national standard for GMO labeling, we can avoid a patchwork of different state labeling requirements and also give consumers additional information at the grocery store,” the union wrote.
But opponents of the legislation, citing the Food and Drug Administration’s technical comments on the bill, argued that it contained loopholes that would exempt many ingredients, including oils and sugar, as well as new techniques for genetic engineering. The critics also said that the digital disclosure would be inadequate.
“This bill should be titled the consumers' right not-to-know,” complained Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley disputed claims by the Agriculture Department’s general counsel, outlined in a letter to Stabenow, that the legislation would give USDA authority to cover techniques such as gene editing and include highly refined ingredients in the disclosure standard.
“USDA is not an impartial actor,” Merkley said in what was an unusual allegation to make about an agency run by the lawmaker’s own party.
Merkley said the department had been a “major proponent” of digital disclosure. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has long supported the industry’s plans to provide information about ingredients through QR codes that can be read by smartphones.
Stabenow told reporters before Wednesday’s cloture vote that some of the bill’s opponents could never be won over. “The folks that are opposed to our technology and the use of genetically modified ingredients won’t be satisfied,” she said. “I respect their opinion. It’s just different than mine around the science of biotechnology.”
The 17 Democrats who joined her in supporting the cloture motion were: Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Tom Carper of Delaware, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Dianne Feinstein of California, Al Franken of Minnesota, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Gary Peters of Michigan, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Warner of Virginia.
The margin might have been larger if three senators had not missed the vote. Roberts said he thought at least two of them would have voted for cloture. All three of those senators - Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.; and Mike Lee, R-Utah - had supported a procedural motion June 29 to move to the GMO bill.
For food and agriculture groups, Wednesday’s outcome came as a relief after months of uncertainty about the Vermont labeling law and the prospects for federal preemption.
“We are thankful for the tremendous showing of bipartisan support that has lined up behind this bill and we are hopeful that it will clear the Senate later this week,” said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “We saw over the weekend that the negative impacts of Vermont’s law are already hitting consumers and small businesses, with shoppers in Vermont seeing fewer options on the shelves.”
Richard Wilkins, president of the American Soybean Association, said the bill would provide consumers “the information about biotech content in food products that they need without stigmatizing a completely safe and sustainable food technology.”
Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, said, “We are now a major step closer to ending the confusion that has already arisen because of the Vermont law.”