A single reporter had just one more question about GMO labeling for Sen. Debbie Stabenow as the senator rushed from a conversation with reporters to another event on Tuesday.
With the letters GMO still ringing in the air, a pack of reporters followed Stabenow out the door to catch one more snippet of information on what direction the Senate could go GMOs.
Low commodity prices, input costs and planting season might be the issues taking up the attention of farmers, but GMO labels continue to dominate the conversation among leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees who met Tuesday with members of the North American Agricultural Journalists.
"I think the biggest problem we have in agriculture is all of this labeling," said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Vermont is moving on with its GMO labeling regime and companies have responded in different ways as some have decided to label whether their products contain ingredients from genetically modified crops while other companies are reformulating their food products to avoid using ingredients from biotech crops.
The U.S. Senate failed to pass a federal preemption bill in March in a 48-49 vote when the bill needed 60 votes to pass. That bill, however, and a House version that was passed last year, would have prevented labeling a food product as genetically modified or genetically engineered unless the Food and Drug Administration saw a health reason to do so.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, wouldn't use the term GMO when talking to reporters. He said "agricultural biotechnology" but said there was not yet another compromise to sway at least 12 senators to shift their votes and back it.
"When that happens on the other side of the aisle that should be vetted by the producers, the growers and everybody connected to the food industry," Roberts said. "That simply has not happened."
Roberts said staff on the Senate Agriculture Committee continue to work on a solution. He added that the problem isn't isolated to Vermont or a handful of states, but to as many as 31 states considering different labeling rules that could completely hamper food-processing companies around the country.
"The food industry cannot be success and the entire system of farm-to-fork has already seen reformulation, which is a very nice word to define the fact that we're not going to buy what you're selling, to various producers ... It is a real challenge for us," Roberts said.
Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, told reporters that Congress is still trying to ensure people have the information they need to know what is in their food but also avoid having a different labeling standard in every state. Also, any standard or language should be done in a way that does not harm or hinder the ability to use biotechnology.
"Weaving that thread is probably the most difficult thing I have worked on here," Stabenow said. She added, "Trying to find that balance is difficult and I don't believe the votes are here unless we set a national standard -- a mandatory standard -- for transparency and we can do that in a way that provides flexibility and meets certain needs. I just don't see the votes being here to preempt states, to take away states' rights to pass laws in their states without having a national standard."
The issue reminded Stabenow of the battle when California passed a law to raise its fuel-economy standards and prompted other states to do the same. Eventually, a federal compromise was reached to raise fuel-economy standards and preempt varying state laws.
"I see a lot of parallels here in terms of what states are doing, what consumers are doing and what we need to do that is necessary," Stabenow said.
Not having a consistent national standard creates a long-term risk of disrupting the food industry, but there also needs to be better consumer education about what it means when a food is genetically modified, Stabenow said.
Peterson said the marketplace could sort out the labeling issues and everyone could discover the vast majority of consumers aren't as interested in the biotechnology aspects of a product as advocacy groups and others believe. At the same time, Peterson noted right now companies are starting to label everything including salt as "non-GMO."
Additionally, there are people in the organic business who are somewhat reluctant about a non-GMO label because organic-certified foods could lose market share to cheaper alternatives simply labeled non-GMO.
Peterson, whose district includes sugarbeet growers and processors, said the push by companies to switch from GMO to non-GMO ingredients is dividing the sugar industry. Nearly all sugarbeets are grown using a glyphosate-resistant variety while no sugarcane varieties are. If the sugar market becomes out of whack, it could also lead to significant costs in the federal sugar program as sugarbeet growers dump unsold product onto the federal government for the marketing loans.
Peterson said he believed a mandatory smart label --- allowing people to identify ingredients through a smartphone app -- could pass the House.
At the moment there continue to be more questions about where biotech labeling is headed.
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