Progress on Capitol Hill

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When we look back on 2016, we will remember this year as one of the most eventful and unpredictable political years in memory. While media attention focuses on the presidential race, the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) continues to focus its attention on increasing awareness on Capitol Hill of the many policy issues impacting the seed industry. Given the diversity of our industry, there is no shortage of work. Industry engagement with Congress is critical, and as the old saying goes, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

ASTA’s officers, executive committee and members have dedicated themselves to strengthening ties with policymakers on Capitol Hill and regulatory agencies, both in Washington, D.C., and at home. This personal connection — putting a face on the industry — has been critical to ASTA’s recent successes.

At our 2015 annual meeting in Washington, D.C., we had more than 125 seed advocates “Storm the Hill.” In 2016, nearly 50 members returned to the nation’s capitol just to lobby.

Furthermore, a group of leaders, spearheaded by John Latham, launched the SeedFirst PAC to provide more opportunities for face-to-face education with members of Congress. In addition to the grassroots efforts, ASTA’s government affairs team has been hard at work.

Voices Lead to Victories

During this Congressional session, we have already scored major victories.

Ratification of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) has been a top priority for ASTA since the late 2000s. After an initial hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2010, momentum stalled, and we did not see any movement on the treaty until earlier this year.

Then, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the treaty May 19, and former ASTA Chair John Schoenecker testified about the importance of securing access to international sources of germplasm for ASTA and all of agriculture. On June 23, the full committee recommended ratification of the ITPGRFA to the Senate. We are hopeful that the Senate will ratify the treaty when it returns in September.

Seed World readers know that for many years, activists have mandated the labeling of food using ingredients derived from genetically engineered plants. After numerous state ballot initiatives and with a labeling law in Vermont that was set to go into force in July 2016, establishing a federal standard through legislation became a top priority for the entire food chain.

After years of work and compromise, the House and the Senate finally passed a bill.

The bill, which is now law, gives federal preemption over state labeling laws and establishes a framework where food companies must disclose information about their ingredients. Food companies will be able to choose how to convey the information — through electronic means, such as a QR code, words or a symbol. Smaller companies have the option to reference a 1-800 number.

The fact that it passed by a large margin in both the House and the Senate reflects that it was a true compromise.

ASTA’s staff and members have actively advocated for a federal solution, and we will continue to stay very involved as the U.S. Department of Agriculture develops the regulations required by the law.

Another priority area for ASTA members is the annual appropriations set by Congress. The budget impacts the seed industry in a variety of ways, one of which is funding for agricultural research, such as the Germplasm Enhancement of Maize project. Another is the Bureau of Land Management’s budget for post-fire restoration.

Although we’ve seen positive movement in both areas, Congress will likely wait and pass a last-minute budget deal after the election or postpone it altogether until after January. We won’t know until then if our priorities have made the cut.

As part of the agriculture sector, the seed industry is well positioned to take on the next big task: laying the groundwork for the 2018 Farm Bill.

Thank you to everyone who has participated in our advocacy efforts, and to those who haven’t, it’s not too late to let your voice be heard!

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