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Ranking Member Stabenow Opening Statement at Hearing on Agriculture Innovation and Biotechnology

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry, today released the following opening statement at the hearing titled “Agriculture Innovation and the Federal Biotechnology Regulatory Framework.”

Stabenow’s statement, as prepared for delivery, follows:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Welcome to our witnesses and thank you for providing valuable testimony.

Innovation is the foundation of American agriculture. From breakthroughs in plant breeding… to advances in crop rotation… land-grant universities, researchers, and creative farmers have revolutionized what we grow and how we grow it.

Today, agriculture faces many challenges that will require us to push the bounds of what’s possible.We know we need to increase food production in a sustainable way in order to feed a growing global population that is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. At the same time, farmers are seeing the impacts of the climate crisis, which has made growing the food we eat even more difficult. 

Biotechnology has the potential to help us increase our productivity, while also helping farmers address the climate crisis. Drought-tolerant plant varieties can help farmers weather historic dry spells. Cover crops are being improved to have deeper roots to hold more carbon in the soil, creating new opportunities for farmers to sell carbon credits in voluntary markets.

In order to make the most out of the innovative potential of biotechnology, consumers and our trading partners both need certainty. That is why it is critical to ensure that our regulatory system is effective, science-based, and transparent.

It is also important to balance flexibility that encourages new product development with reliable standards that ensure products are safe.

I’m concerned that the USDA’s proposed biotech rule, published last June, does not provide adequate oversight of our biotechnology sector. The hands-off approach proposed by USDA lacks the strong scientific justification that consumers and our trading partners expect. I urge the USDA to include scientific support for the agency’s approach when publishing a final rule. 

I’m also deeply concerned that the proposed rule would allow developers of certain products to determine for themselves whether the regulations apply. Under the proposed rule, a company could make its own determination that its product is exempt from the regulation. That product could then enter the marketplace without any public notification or consumer awareness. 

I think that many Americans will find that unacceptable, and I’m concerned that many of our trading partners will as well.

As recently as 2013, farmers experienced enormous disruptions when China began rejecting shipments of corn and distillers grains after finding trace amounts of a biotech trait that had been approved by the U.S., but was still under review in China. Right now, our farmers cannot afford to face any more barriers to trade.

I want to make clear that I believe in science. And science tells us that biotechnology is safe and that it can improve people’s lives. However, we need to be fully transparent in order to ensure customers at home and abroad aren’t doubting the safety of these products.

A broad coalition of biotech industry leaders, agribusinesses, and consumer advocates agree on this. Just last week, they sent a letter to urge the OMB to modify the self-determination provision because they understand the importance of a transparent and consistent regulation.

It’s really important that we get this right. I encourage USDA to listen to this broad coalition of stakeholders and modify the rule before publishing the final version of it.

Thank you.