Senate Ag Committee Chairman Discusses GMO Food Labeling Bill

Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) was a guest on yesterday’s AgriTalk radio program with Mike Adams, where the conversation focused on GMO labeling issues and Senate action on a GMO labeling bill that passed the Senate Ag Committee last week.  (In part, the bill amends the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 by providing definitions for the national voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard).

Below is an unofficial transcript of the AgriTalk discussion.

Recall that an alternative GMO labeling bill has also been introduced in the Senate (ensures that consumers can find GMO ingredient labeling on food packaging), and that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has also weighed in the issue (thinks mandatory labeling necessary to get 60 votes in the Senate).

The editorial boards at both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have also recently expressed strong, and opposite, opinions on GMO labeling.

Unofficial AgriTalk transcript (audio replay here (MP3- 10:00)):

Mike Adams: Mr. Chairman, thank you for being with us. Let’s get right to your GMO labeling bill. How are things going in trying to come up with a compromise bill? How close are you?

Sen. Ag. Comm. Chairman Pat Roberts: Well, the good thing is that the leader has said that we’re going to take up this bill next week. Certainly before the break, we have to. Last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee voted on a 14-6 bipartisan vote to pass the Chairman’s mark–my mark–on the Biotechnology Labeling Solutions. So we passed the bill in the Senate [Ag Committee]. We are now working with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to see if we can’t get a bill that, well, that can pass the Senate. So that’s where we are, and we will continue. We have to address the labeling concerns as soon as possible. We have to provide certainty well before July when the Vermont state labeling all would go into effect.

Adams: How do you get through the challenge of those that want mandatory labeling and those in your bill that is for voluntary? How do you find middle ground there?

Roberts: Mike, I think the answer is you have to persevere and do it very carefully, but we have the support– last count about 650 organizations from all across the food chain and agriculture–farmers, ranchers–and now you have people like lenders and other people waking up to the fact of what would happen. We could shut down the food supply in this country if we’re not careful.

There’s about 20-26 other states trying to do the same thing. It would be a hodgepodge of interstate commerce. You’d have to separate corn, wheat, soybeans, all sorts of really crazy things. So you just continue negotiations. I’m working with Deborah Stabenow of Michigan and other senators, especially the three that voted for the bill or the mark, in the Senate Committee. We just have to reach a bipartisan compromise. We’re working on that, and I think we can get it done.

Adams: So we keep hearing the term “pathway to mandatory labeling.” I mean, do you come up with something that starts off voluntary, but it winds up mandatory, or what is the path that you’re looking at here?

Roberts: Well, the path is just to get the bill done. We can leave–I’m not prepared to really talk about all of the details of the negotiations, but I’m just simply going to say we have to act now to ensure that the marketplace works. I know everybody’s concentrating on the issue of GMOs. We held a hearing earlier–actually last year–and it was a good hearing. We had the Food and Drug Administration. We had the Department of Agriculture and the EPA, and they said that our food is safe.

I think everybody on the committee understands that, and they also said that GMOs were safe. So I know that there’s a lot of concern with regards to this issue about GMOs and the right to know, but the issue is really to prevent one state from trying to dictate their labeling law with regards to the rest of the country. That labeling law is certainly not perfect by any means. It’s flawed, and we don’t want to go down that road. So that’s the real issue.

Adams: Would you expect when you finally get to the floor a lot of amendments before a final vote takes place?

Roberts: There may be a substitute from those that would prefer, you know, mandatory and that basically are listening to the folks who are concerned about GMO. I would not expect too many other amendments. We don’t want to open up the Farm Bill. We’re not going to do that. And so, we could raise a point of order on that. But again, you know, the whole issues–the whole issue is that we need to move. It’s like a giant wrecking ball coming right down through the food chain from farm to fork. So that’s what we need to do. We are working with all parties and the administration to see if we can’t get this so-called pathway.

Adams: Talking with the Chairman of the Senate Ag Committee, Senator Pat Roberts from Kansas. Mr. Chairman, have they given you any specific timeline on when this–your bill could come up for a vote on the floor?

Roberts: Well, time is of–is of real importance. This law would go into effect up in Vermont in July. So we know that we have to act. And so, the leader will schedule time on the floor. One thing about it, we want at least, you know, 20 Democrats to go along with us. I’d like to have everybody. I’d like to have a big vote in this regard. But if we’re not successful, those who voted against it will have to understand that they have the responsibility to explain to the American people why they–why we have a patchwork of labeling laws that could shut down our nation’s food supply. I mean, that’s just not, you know, we are not going to do that.

So that’s the worst side of it, but I think the good news is that when we must face this–and we must face this responsibility–it is the committee’s responsibility and every person on that committee. So when you have a timeline, people have to, you know, people have to reach a conclusion. So we’re working very hard. I hope to have some agreement by the end of this week.

Adams: Do you feel you’re close without giving away details of the negotiations? Do you feel like you’re making progress?

Roberts: Oh, I–yes. I think we’re making progress without question. I mean, the fact that we moved it 14-6 in committee was a good sign, and we’ll continue to negotiate in good faith, and we’ll see what happens.

Adams: Your 14-6 vote though was kind of, what, two or three contingent on changes being made. So they were kind of–it was just kind of a, “Yeah, we’ll go along with it now, but won’t at the end unless something–we see big changes or significant changes in the bill.” Is that right?

Roberts: Well, I don’t’ think that would happen. If I were a senator that voted “yes” to move the bill and then voted on the floor “no” I think it would be those 650 different organizations who are very active in this, and I know the advocacy groups are just as well. People in that situation, Mike, make a lot of “while I” speeches. You know, “While I am concerned about this or that.” We do have to move this bill. So I think that’s the attitude that we’re going to carry into these negotiations as we continue. We’ll be working today, and if necessary, tomorrow and the next day and the next day. And we will get this done.

Adams: Would you say though the overall feeling within Congress, although there may–there are disagreements over mandatory or voluntary labeling–but the overall feeling is a national label much better than the patchwork of states doing it?

Roberts: Well, Mike, that’s obvious. And the USDA has to define precisely what we’re talking about with regard to Agriculture Biotechnology. That’s the correct term, by the way, as opposed to GMO. This is Agriculture Biotechnology and whether it is safe all across the board. And the bill will actually tell the [USDA] that they have the responsibility to define precisely what we are talking about. That in and of itself is a tall order and will take the USDA a considerable amount of time. But without that national standard, as you pointed out, you could end up with–oh, right now, I think there’s at least 20-26 other states that would come up with their own label. That’s just not going to work.

Adams: Are you even getting into what would be on the label as far as the wording, as far as punctuation?

Roberts: No. That would be…

Adams: Or anything like that?

Roberts: No. Well, first, you’ve got to figure out what it is that is defined, and that is precise in our legislation. We want the USDA with all of their scientific expertise to come up exactly what we’re talking about. If you don’t do that, you’re going to be bringing every commodity, or for that matter, livestock or everything else into this–into this situation. That is a trail we don’t want to go down.

Adams: Would you have a vote if you’re not sure of having enough votes to pass it?

Roberts: I think the leader has expressed his desire to address this issue to at least signal that the Congress has done its job, and if the vote turns out all right, that’s the good news. If it does not, obviously repeated attempts would have to be made, but I would much prefer to have a bipartisan agreement before we go to the floor. That’s what we’re working on over time as of this entire week.

Adams: So it should happen soon, then, it sounds like.

Roberts: Yes, it will.

Adams: All right. Senator, thank you very much. We look forward to seeing what you come up with as far as a compromise bill that can get passed, and we’ll be watching closely. Hope to talk to you again soon. Thank you very much.

Roberts: You bet. Thank you for your, you know, for the opportunity. Bye, bye.

Adams: All right.

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