Washington Insider -- Monday

GMO Fight Moves to Senate

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Vilsack Sees no Quick End to RFS Litigation

Litigation over the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and its ethanol mandate is likely to continue as the biofuels and petroleum industries continue to spar, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Feb. 19, saying “you’re going to have constant litigation.”

The biofuels industry contends that Environmental Protection Agency RFS-mandated ethanol blending volumes fall below what is called for under the 2007 law.

Petroleum industry advocates have warned that setting the volumes any higher risks breaching the so-called “blend wall” of 10% ethanol content in retail gasoline, the level above which certain vehicles, particularly older ones, could experience ethanol-related damage.

Both sides have threatened or initiated litigation against EPA due to the issue.


Court Cancels WOTUS Oral Arguments

The cancellation of Feb. 23 oral arguments over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Rule (WOTUS) was announced by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which will wait for a separate ruling from the Sixth Circuit on separate challenges to the rule.

Proper jurisdiction, whether it is at the appellate or district court levels, is the question being litigated in the Sixth Circuit before the dozens of pending challenges can move forward. Previously, the Sixth Circuit implemented a nationwide stay on the WOTUS rule, until the current cases can be litigated.

Oral arguments on the 20 consolidated challenges to the WOTUS rule were held before the Sixth Circuit on Dec. 8 and a ruling is pending. Given the much earlier date of the oral arguments, it is likely that it was the motivating factor for the Eleventh Circuits decision to cancel their own scheduled oral arguments.

Washington Insider: GMO Fight Moves to Senate

Senate Ag Chair Pat Roberts, R- Kan., introduced a bill last week that would preempt a potential patchwork of differing state laws mandating biotech food and feed labels. Roberts would direct the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national standard for the safety and labeling of foods made with genetically-modified organisms, along with an accompanying public education campaign providing science-based information to “address consumer acceptance of agricultural biotechnology.”

The bill would specifically head off any state laws that might require different labels.

The House of Representatives passed its measure to blocks any mandatory GMO labeling last summer. It also would pre-empt state labeling laws.

Current federal labeling policy is that GMOs on the market are safe and that labels about GMO content are not necessary. Advocacy groups, however, argue consumers have “a right to know” what’s in their foods, and that Congress shouldn’t be trying to pre-empt states.

There is a sense of urgency surrounding this bill now because Vermont’s mandatory law requiring on-package labels of foods containing GMO ingredients goes into effect July 1. Maine and Connecticut have similar laws which also don’t take effect unless neighboring states follow suit.

Several other states may consider labeling bills this year, observers say, and farm groups and food industry lobbyists argue that the Roberts’ bill is needed to avert major supply chain disruptions and inefficiencies in production, storage, transportation, manufacturing and distribution of food and feed that would translate into significant cost increases for consumers.

Some of the difficulties with the issue can be seen from Campbell Soup’s recent announcement that it now supports mandatory national labeling for GMO products and that it will stop backing efforts opposing the disclosures of that fact. It said about three-quarters of its products contain GMOs and released a mock-up of the label it would use to comply if Vermont’s law goes into effect. It says, “Partially produced with genetic engineering” in small print at the bottom. However, more than a few analysts are skeptical that the Campbell Soup language will satisfy label advocates.

Along with many farm groups, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization applauded Roberts’ proposal on the grounds that it will give consumers fact-based information without the added costs and confusion of differing state laws. Brian Baenig, BIO’s Executive Vice President of Food & Agriculture said, “We want consumers to know more about food and farming…conveyed in a way that doesn’t stigmatize beneficial farming methods such as biotechnology.”

He also argues that this is not hard to do, and that there are a number of tools such as the SmartLabel, QR codes, 1-800 numbers and other educational resources that offer “an abundance of information about food ingredients, nutrition, allergens, product usage, brand information and more.” He thinks the Roberts bill supports farmer choice and the use of technology while providing consumers with useful information about the foods they buy.

However, advocates reject BIO’s proposed solution for several reasons, including the assertion that high-tech approaches discriminate against the poor. Label critics suggest that the advocate rejections reflect their unwillingness to accept approaches they cannot control to raise unsubstantiated threats from biotechnology.

The National Corn Growers Association also applauded Roberts for his bill, and President Chip Bowling wants food safety and labeling decisions to be made by scientists, not political activists and campaigns. He argues that it is imperative that the Senate take up this issue quickly to avoid a situation in which all American consumers pay a high price and gain little actual information.

Analysts suggest that the outlook for Roberts’ legislation will be much brighter if it attracts bi-partisan support—and, especially if the Committee’s ranking Democrat, Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., supports it, or at least does not actively oppose it on the Senate floor. It is still not yet clear that the bill can muster the 60-vote threshold needed to move the forward.

So, the battle over biotech continues—generally made necessary by the unwillingness of advocates to accept the decisions of scientists that GMO are safe. While the use of electronic information of one kind or another seems to provide a compromise, advocates seem determined to avoid any label they cannot manage. Nevertheless, the Senate ag committee seems to be on course to begin serious consideration of their bill this week, a process producers should watch carefully as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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