A bipartisan biotech compromise

July 19, 2016

For Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers, the day usually begins early. Long before others are even awake, they are at work in the fields and pastures.

Contrary to John Denver’s charming song, life on a farm or ranch is not “kind of laid back.” It is hard work with a heavy responsibility to feed the world. With more than 9 billion people expected on our planet by 2050, our agriculture producers have a tall order.

But a Vermont state law attempted to impose burdens upon our ag community and their ability to feed this growing population. Passed by state legislators in Vermont in 2014, the law required any company selling food in Vermont to label those products that contain biotechnology.

This law became a national standard by default. The requirements are too complicated and costly for companies to re-label all of their products separately for just one state. Without a uniform definition, the most complex requirement became, overnight, the new law of the land.

Suddenly, agriculture producers and food manufacturers across America could not use biotechnology without fear of punishment. They faced a terrible choice: either provide misleading labels that villainized their products or pay crushing fines for not complying.

Attacks on biotechnology are the result of misinformation and flawed science. The world’s leading scientists have come together to push back. In a letter submitted last month, over 100 Nobel Prize laureates affirmed the benefits and safety of biotechnology. They wrote, “scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than, those derived from any other method of production.”

The Vermont labeling law went into effect on July 1, but Congress worked together on a bipartisan compromise to replace it. I supported this compromise in the Senate. Soon after, it passed the House of Representatives by a wide margin.

The agreement was the product of bipartisan compromise between Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. It requires the Department of Agriculture to set a national standard for foods using biotechnology. But it also provides food manufacturers with much-needed flexibility when it comes to how their products are labeled. The bill allows them to meet these requirements with three different options: through text on a package, a symbol, or even an electronic link. Especially helpful, this compromise exempts livestock and most meat products.

Like many of my neighbors, our family has ranched for generations. When considering the Senate compromise, I spoke with my neighbors and friends, as well as ag producers across Nebraska. They all agreed it would reduce the unnecessary harm that would result from the Vermont law. And, in good Nebraskan fashion, they gave me their reasons.

First, the compromise recognizes the scientific consensus that biotechnology is safe. Second, it lets consumers know what is in their food. Third, it gives producers the certainty they need to carry on their mission of providing safe, high-quality, and affordable food to hungry people worldwide.

I would like to suggest one more reason. We live in a big country. We deal in interstate commerce. And as we move products across the nation, we need one standard for the entire country. That’s what this bill will create.

It has the support of Nebraska’s producers, including the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation and the Western Sugar Cooperative.

The bill now heads to the president’s desk for his signature. I am hopeful he will sign it into law soon.

We all want safe food. This bipartisan agreement protects our ag community from a patchwork of state-by-state biotech labeling laws and the uncertainty that would come with it. By taking action, we are ensuring Nebraska families can continue to feed the world.

Thank you for taking part in our democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.