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Senate fails to invoke cloture on GMO labeling debate

Sen. Pat Roberts' biotech labeling bill lacks enough support to continue forward in debate.

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) was unable to secure the 60 votes needed to advance his bill that would institute a voluntary national labeling standard for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and avoid a patchwork of state standards.

The Senate voted 49-48 to invoke cloture, which would have allowed for full debate on the bill if 60 votes had been in favor.

In his final plea before the vote, Roberts said a "no" vote on cloture proved whether each senator was for agriculture or not. He said, “Voting no today means telling your constituents that you're raising their grocery bills over $1,000.”

Extensive time on the Senate floor was taken up by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), who criticized Roberts' bill. Merkley has introduced a bill that would offer four mandatory labeling options for biotechnology, similar to how nutrition facts are listed on the back of a food label. However, Roberts said Merkley was not willing to allow his alternative proposal to be included as an amendment if the bill passed cloture.

“Voting no today puts farmers and all of agriculture at risk,” Roberts said, explaining that the whole food chain would be affected, including farmers who will be pressured to plant fence row to fence row with less-superior products, grain operators who will have to segregate crops and consumers who will have to pay higher food prices.

Some Democrats did cross over to support the measure, including Sens. Joe Donnelly (D, Ind.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.). However, as expected, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) remained opposed to any proposal that does not have a mandatory labeling component.

Roberts, Stabenow and Senate Democrats have been trying to find a compromise on GMO labeling. Stabenow said she is “forever the optimist that we will get there, even though we are not there yet.”

She added, “I believe it is possible for us to come together in a bipartisan solution.”

In her floor speech, Stabenow said the current proposal on the table is the “wrong approach.”

She said, “We should be telling the story, as should farmers — the story of biotechnology and the importance that it plays in our food production and in food security. We should not be taking action that further appears to stop consumers from getting the information they want and feeding into the idea that there's something wrong, there's a reason to hide, because there is not. We should embrace this opportunity to share with the public what is in our food, talk about it, why we use these crops and why they are deemed safe.”

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