Originally published on Grist.
On Wednesday morning, for the first time in a decade, there was a US Senate hearing on agricultural biotechnology. Lawmakers are tuning into the issue for two reasons: First, the Obama administration has said that it’s time to update and modernize GMO regulations; second, there are bills pending that would either force or ban mandatory labeling of GMOs in food products.
The hearing, held by the Senate agriculture committee, provided a chance to gauge how senators are thinking about this issue. The Senate is currently mulling a bill, already passed by the House, that would set a federal standard for voluntary labeling, while also invalidating any mandatory labeling laws that states — like Vermont — have passed or might pass. I’ve gotten the sense from Politico’s reporting on this that Republicans are having a hard time finding Democratic senators to sign on to the bill, so I was a bit surprised to see a fairly pro-GMO sentiment prevailing in the hearing Tuesday morning.
Of course, this was the agriculture committee — and I’d expect some pro-GMO sentiments from Democrats with big constituencies of farmers. But I was also expecting to see some senators from more liberal states channeling anti-GMO concerns as well. Instead, I heard strong pro-GMO statements, and no senator planted a flag on anti-GMO ground.
An exchange between regulators and Heidi Heitkamp, a no-nonsense Democrat from North Dakota, was illustrative of the general tenor of the hearing. The regulators had been saying time and time again that the GMOs they approved were just as safe as any other food. So Heitkamp asked William Jordan, from the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, to explain how he shared the information he used to determine that safety with the public. Jordan began talking about making every effort toward transparency against a broader backdrop of a general decline in trust in government.
Heitkamp jumped in: “Except what people hear is blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah.”
Jordan: “I know that.”
Heitkamp: “I believe the science is so strong in this area — that these are products that will not have an adverse effect in any way on health, in fact can improve health by making food more available worldwide. And yet we seem to be losing the fight, not just on labeling but on how we are going to make these products more accessible.”
Then, turning away from Jordan, she threw the question to a USDA regulator, who began to give a similar homily about the importance of press releases and emailing stakeholders.