Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
August 20, 2014

House Panel Hones Skills on Genetically Modified Consumers | Madisonville

House Panel Hones Skills on Genetically Modified Consumers | Madisonville

Ranking member Schrader. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The more obscure House committee hearings can be like minor league baseball: a place to see raw talent refining its skills for a bigger stage. You just have to look past the wild pitches and base-running mistakes.

House Agriculture has a Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee that includes Rodney Davis, R-Ill., and ranking member Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., on the roster. Davis, holding the gavel in the absence of the chairman, pounded it audibly at a hearing last week and spoke with one-day-I’ll-be-a-real-chairman deliberation. Schrader kept saying “this great country” as though he had been flubbing it in the past and was sent down for additional practice.

The hearing was on the Benefits of Biotechnology. The missing subtitle was “The Problem With Consumers.” The committee was there to lament the fact that consumers don’t buy enough genetically-modified food. Shoppers apparently picture the skull and crossbones whenever they see a label saying genetically modified. General Motors can boost sales after disclosing its cars kill people, but the food business can’t move beef fed with genetically engineered grain.

Since even the ignorant and unreasonable consumer is always right, the panel and its witnesses agreed — the consensus seemed grudging — that farmers, scientists and genetic engineering companies were to blame. And “outside groups,” said Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican. The outside group problem is like the knuckleball. The pitcher hopes it’s so unfathomable that it provokes a wild swing from the batter.

Panel members and witnesses thought better communication and education would bring consumers around on genetic engineering. Explain and they’ll understand. Like with climate science.  The subcommittee started the initiative by not inviting any consumers to testify. That allowed at least extra practice time in an environment where the pressure isn’t so great.

The witnesses were three doctors of the academic variety and Joanna Lidback, a Vermont dairy farmer. Farmers prompt strange reactions in Congress. Like certain old-fashioned Catholics in the presence of a nun, members start looking for ways to establish their virtue.  Schrader said he was an organic farmer and a veterinarian. California Republican Doug “I’m a farmer myself; it’s a good life” LaMalfa chimed in.  Yoho said he’s a veterinarian, “equine medicine.”

Not wanting to be left out and not quite fitting in, Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., said she started her career in biotechnology. That’s not exactly a background that warms the heart, but this is the place to make rookie mistakes.

Acting manager Davis allowed a second round of questioning, another chance for the players to sharpen their skills. The message was looking pretty confused, which may have been the reason one of the witnesses asked whether he could say something without provoking more questions.

There’s always tomorrow’s game.

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