No Senate Biotech Bill Until Fall

By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) — The biotechnology and food industries had a big victory Thursday when the House voted 275-150 to approve a bill that would stop states from establishing laws to require labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients. But Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he would not introduce a biotechnology labeling bill in the Senate until fall. The White House, which had been neutral, issued a cautionary statement.

The vote breakdown on H.R. 1599, "The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act," showed that 230 Republicans and 45 Democrats voted for the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan. The legislation would stop states from labeling foods with genetically modified ingredients and establish a voluntary "non-GMO" labeling program at the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Marketing Service. According to the House Daily Gallery tally, 138 Democrats and 12 Republicans voted against it.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has said it is in talks with Hoeven about a Senate bill, but when reporters asked Hoeven about it Thursday, he said he is still trying to write a bill that would achieve bipartisan support in the Senate.

Hoeven said that he did not know if the Pompeo bill would pass the Senate, but he doesn’t have a bill either that would pass the Senate.

Meanwhile, a White House official said in an email to DTN, "We are monitoring H.R. 1599. We know that some consumers are interested in knowing more about their food, including whether their food includes ingredients from genetically engineered crops. As the bill progresses, we will continue to track this legislation."

The White House Office of Management and Budget did not issue a statement of administration policy on the Pompeo bill, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said only that he has more faith in an initiative by food companies to use barcodes to inform consumers about ingredients — including those that are genetically modified.

Several ag commodity and agribusiness groups praised the passage of the biotech labeling bill.

Wade Cowan, American Soybean Association president and a soybean farmer from Brownfield, Texas, called the bill’s passage a "significant victory for the freedom of soybean farmers to make the most of the broad range of advances that biotechnology provides for our industry."

"The bill accomplishes much, including the prevention of a state-by-state patchwork of conflicting labeling laws that would drive up grocery costs," Cowan stated in a news release on Thursday. "Additionally, the bill empowers and guides those companies who wish to label and market their products as GMO-free to do so by through a USDA-accredited certification process.

"ASA believes this approach, which would label a select subset of products marketed at a premium, makes far more sense than labeling the vast majority of common, everyday products in the grocery store. What it also avoids is the inevitable demonization of these products based on debunked science and willful misinformation. With the advent and advance of modern biotechnology, farmers have made massive strides toward addressing the significant challenge that lies ahead of us — to feed a global population of nearly 10 billion by 2050. We simply can’t meet that challenge if we allow our technology to be stigmatized based on false safety claims."

Brett Blankenship, National Association of Wheat Growers president and a wheat grower from Washtucna, Washington, said in a news release Thursday that the legislation reflects the support of consumers and farmers for a consistent and transparent food label.

"The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act provides a clear, commonsense labeling standard that eliminates the current state-by-state unworkable patchwork," Blankenship stated in the release. "We commend the House for passing this standardized labeling rule, and we encourage the Senate to move on this legislation in the same bipartisan, supportive fashion."

The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, a national association representing farmer cooperatives, also expressed its support for the legislation.

"Growers and farmer co-ops across the U.S. have embraced biotechnology as a way to increase yields in an environmentally and economically sustainable way; we only have to look to the drought of two years ago to see the benefits that many of these crops provide," NCFC stated in a news release Thursday. "With a world population headed to 9 billion people by 2050, GMO crops will play a key role in feeding the future. This bill represents an important step in cutting through the misinformation about GMOs and instead focuses on the science attesting to their safety and the benefits these crops provide."

Other groups, including Just Label It, the Environmental Working Group, the Center for Food Safety and the Organic Trade Council had campaigned against the bill before its passage on Thursday.

"This bill is counter to clear market trends and commonsense notions of transparency and consumer choice, and is an obvious case of government overreach," Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Stonyfield Farm and chairman of Just Label It, said earlier in the week before the House vote. "The backers of this bill are siding with protecting big chemical and food companies in their efforts to hide basic facts and against average citizens who simply want to know more about their food and how it’s produced."

"We will use every tool at our disposal to educate the 90% of Americans who support mandatory GMO labeling about how bad this bill is," Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It and senior vice president of EWG, said before the House vote on the bill. "It’s time for members of Congress to listen to the voices of consumers who want more transparency in our food system, rather than bowing to big chemical companies like Monsanto."