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GMO solution continues to be sought on Capitol Hill

Article-GMO solution continues to be sought on Capitol Hill

Can market adjust accordingly in GMO debate without Congress acting to pre-empt state laws?

The House has passed its solution to avoid a patchwork of labeling standards for foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the Senate seems willing, yet unable, to come to an agreement on what can pass the Senate and also be sent over to the House to gain passage.

In speaking with top members of the House and Senate agriculture committees on Tuesday morning, it appears that the understanding of the problem is real; however, the question remains whether something gets done before the July 1 implementation date of Vermont’s GMO labeling law. Some are hopeful that there is still time to work out a final compromise.

Countering the idea that Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) and their staffs haven’t been working on finding a compromise “isn’t correct,” according to Roberts. Stabenow said she’s “hopeful” that they’ll come to an agreement.

Roberts was able to pass a bill out of his committee with a 14-6 vote that had Democrat support. However, when the bill was brought up on the full Senate floor, it failed to gain the required 60 votes needed to advance to debate, with Democrats predominantly opposed to his legislation.

Also, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) said the marketplace may be able to work this out if only Vermont requires GMO labeling. He is hearing from many companies that they would have to reformulate products to not include ingredients from genetically engineered crops. However, he added that as more big companies such as Campbell’s, Mars and General Mills say they’ll begin to label and aren’t going to reformulate, it takes away some of the impediment to act. Plus, other companies are choosing to just not send their products to Vermont.

“If they do label and don’t reformulate and get to June or July, I think the market will solve this,” Peterson said. He added that if six months passes and nothing has happened, he expects that the whole focus will change from whether to label to what the label will look like. The other side wants “skulls and crossbones,” he said, and “in that fight, we clearly win.”

Roberts said he doesn’t think that is the right answer to the challenge as 31 states are considering legislation or initiatives to have some kind of GMO labeling requirements. More pressing is the four to five northeastern states considering similar legislation to Vermont. Roberts said he is already seeing reformulations in sugar beets especially, and canola could also be affected.

Stabenow said there is a risk in the long run in not having a consistent, national standard. She doesn’t see the votes in the Senate there to pre-empt states laws without having a national mandatory standard for transparency. Stabenow drew parallels to when fuel efficiency standards were being discussed at the state level, and then, too, the only acceptable way of pre-empting states was setting a national standard.

One possible solution has been accepting the food industry’s SmartLabel approach, which allows consumers to scan a QR code or visit a website to obtain additional information on products. Peterson believes the industry can live with that and said he would be supportive of a SmartLabel as a mandatory label and that others in the House likely would be, too.

As Stabenow noted, however, the challenge is making sure people have information that doesn’t penalize biotechnology. She said it's one of the most difficult topics she has been involved in, and trying to find that balance is very difficult.

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