Washington Insider--Wednesday

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

Food and Ag Industry Urges Senate to Take Up GMO Labeling Bill

The Senate should bring up and pass the bipartisan genetically modified (GMO) food labeling legislation drafted by Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., food and ag industry group Coalition for Safe, Affordable Food, said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his counterpart Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The letter, signed by a plethora of groups that runs nearly 12 pages of double-columned signatures, warns that a failure to establish a federal standard for GMO food labeling could result in "economic costs" resulting from "a patchwork of state laws that will directly impact consumers, farmers and the entire food value chain."

Agriculture and the food industry are a vital part of the US economy, with the costs associated with forgoing a national GMO labeling standard weighing on industries responsible for "17 million jobs, representing nearly 1 in 10 jobs," in the U.S., according to the letter.

Further, developments in biotechnology, including GMOs, have "led to increased crop yields, decreased use of pesticides, and lower food costs for consumers," the letter said, adding that, "Congress must ensure we avoid senseless mandates that will thwart agricultural advancement and hurt consumers."

Finally, the letter took aim at the impending Vermont GMO labeling law, saying, "A Vermont-style on-pack only labeling mandate would mislead consumers and drive up their grocery bills."

Oral Arguments Scheduled for WOTUS Venue Question

Oral arguments over the appropriate venue, district or circuit court, for challenges in federal courts to the Environmental Protection Agency's waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule have been scheduled for July 8 in Atlanta before the U.S. Eleventh Circuit of Appeals.

The challenges were brought by an 11-state coalition, led by Georgia. The Eleventh Circuit previously postponed scheduling for arguments pending a resolution to a related challenge before the Sixth Circuit, and following a fractured ruling and then a dismissal of a request for rehearing in that court, the Eleventh Circuit decided to move forward with the litigation before it.

The Eleventh Circuit proceeded with oral arguments after giving all parties to the litigation an opportunity for supplemental briefing on the question of legal jurisdiction. The court issued the scheduling order June 24.

If the Eleventh Circuit decision conflicts with that of the Sixth Circuit, which found it did have jurisdiction over the WOTUS challenges, it would set the stage for the jurisdictional question to potentially come before the Supreme Court.

Washington Insider: GMO Label Deal

A Senate deal has been struck on a nationwide labeling system for genetically modified organisms, but it has some ways to go before it is written into legislation and approved. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kans., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., both backed the deal June 23.

It would establish a mandatory labeling system that allows food makers to choose to disclose GMO ingredients on the package using text, a symbol, or an Internet link directing consumers to more information.

However, there are still a number of aspects of the deal that make some stakeholders unhappy, Bloomberg says -- possibly including House ag chair Michael Conaway, R-Texas, who says he wants to go to conference with his voluntary-only standard. He says he is still studying the Senate deal language.

The draft Senate bill would next face consideration in the Senate, where a voluntary labeling system failed in March. The Senate will not take up the deal this week, so it is not clear when lawmakers might schedule a vote. The House doesn't return until July 5.

While there is much that is still in flux regarding the deal, it clearly won't be done in time to derail Vermont's labeling law which will take effect next week if not superseded.

The Senate negotiators are claiming progress, however. And, a key feature is that any state law regulating GMO labeling would be prevented.

Still, it is unclear whether the current deal will resolve the basic stand-off, Bloomberg says. One of the food industry's top lobbying organizations, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), backs the deal since it would "ensure consumers across the nation" clear, consistent information about their food and beverage ingredients "and prevents a patchwork of confusing and costly state labeling laws," GMA president and CEO Pamela Bailey said.

Also backing the deal are the American Soybean Association and the National Association of Manufacturers.

On the other side of the debate, Just Label It supported the nationwide, mandatory labeling standard requiring explicit, on-packaging labeling and say they are "disappointed that the proposal will require many consumers to rely on smartphones" to learn basic information about their food.

The American Farm Bureau Federation didn't oppose the new language outright, saying that it was reviewing the proposal and still supported a voluntary labeling system. "This deal clearly seeks to prevent a 50-state mismatched quilt of differing labeling standards," the group said. "But the mandatory feature holds significant potential to contribute to confusion and unnecessary alarm."

Advocates note that the proposal "covers tens of thousands of food products exempt from Vermont's law, and protects the integrity of organic food," Stabenow told Bloomberg. And, in a concession to the biotech industry, the bill would tightly define "genetic engineering" in a way that does not include new techniques like gene editing. Still, in a strange move, beef, pork, poultry and eggs would not be subject to labeling when a majority of a product is made with those products, no GMO label would be required. In the case of a pepperoni pizza, for instance, a label would be needed if the flour in the crust originated as GMO wheat, Stabenow said in a statement.

Producers who've secured a "certified organic" designation from USDA would be allowed to clearly display a "non-GMO" label on their products.

The Obama administration praised Roberts and Stabenow for their work but did not officially endorse their language. "It is our hope that their colleagues in the Senate and House of Representatives recognize the difficulty of their work, and the importance of creating a path forward," USDA spokeswoman Catherine Cochran said.

So, the fight seems to have progressed beyond the point where anyone is seriously questioning whether consumers really have any use for on-package labels that finger GMOs -- even though many products are exempt. Still, this fight is far from over. Unfortunately, it seems to be drifting even deeper into the weeds in terms of what is labeled and how the labels are focused, defined, and presented. And, it still has the possibility of raising consumer food costs quite considerably. So the debate still carries high stakes for producers and should be watched carefully as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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