Q&A with Congressman Peter DeFazio on GMOs, veteran’s health care and college costs

On Friday, March 7, 2014, Congressman Peter DeFazio came to a press event put on by Oregon Students Interest Research Group  to speak out about the labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms and OSPIRG’s campaign to ask markets and grocery store chains to label foods that contain GMOs.

“It was a great event,” Hannah Picknell, State Board Chair and UO’s Chapter Chair for OSPIRG, said. “We had a lot of student interest and it was great to hear Peter DeFazio speak since he is such a champion of these issues.”

This week marked the one-year anniversary of a decsion made by Whole Food’s to label GMOs by 2018. OSPIRG has since spoken with chains like Safeway and Market of Choice to ask them to follow this lead.

OSPIRG is continuing speaking with Market of Choice, who according to Picknell, should make their decision in the next few months.

“Consumers have a right to know and make that decision for themselves,” Picknell said. “This is an issue that affect every single person.”

“They’ve chosen an interesting and different route,” DeFazio said. “I’m trying to legislate GMO disclosure at a federal level…but this is a market driven approach, and that is a very interesting tactic.”

After the event, DeFazio sat down for a Q&A with the Emerald.

Why is the labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) important?

I was the author of the National Organics Standards, I’ve been a grower as a home gardener and consumer of organics for more than three decades, and I just would like to have food the way nature brought it to us, so I’d like to avoid GMOs.

I know that according to the polls more than 80 percent of the American people would at least like to know if there are GMOs in the food if not actually avoid GMOs. That is what some of these companies are scared to death of. They don’t want consumers to know. Particularly Monsanto and others because people might say “Hey, I can buy that, that is GMO free and right next to it this has GMOs, and they are virtually the same price. I think I will go with the GMO free.” That’s what they are worried about.

Why come to the UO? What do you think students have the ability to do regarding GMO labeling?

Well, particularly what OSPIRG talked about today. First off, this was something generated by OSPIRG and I just came to support their campaign. Their campaign is to try and enlist grocery store chains, that this would be something that customers want. The great thing about getting students involved is it is going to be a lifetime thing. You’re talking about the next generation of people probably in 20 years, if GMOs don’t take over the world, then this wouldn’t even be a controversy anymore. Today it is a huge pitch battle.

Tell me about the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act. What is the likelihood of its passing?

When you introduce a bill you ask other people to indicate they would support it if you could get it to a vote, and I think I’ve got about 50 people on my bill. You need 218 obviously, but that’s not insignificant. There’s a lot of legislation that moves through the floor that has way fewer than 50 people as co-sponsors. The Republicans control the schedule. They’re not going to allow the bill to move. They’re much more likely to move a fake-labeling bill at the behest of the grocery manufacturers. But we’re pushing. I am also encouraging states. Sooner or later we are going to break the log damn here.

Why would Republicans not want to move the bill?

The grocery manufacturers, Monsanto and others who are totally invested in this stuff, are very very generous campaign contributors. I wouldn’t want to impugn anyone’s motives, but that might have something to do with it.

They’re very powerful. They’ve managed to actually covertly insert legislation at the behest of Monsanto, into two pieces of legislation last year that would’ve allowed them to plant GMOs without any federal oversight whatsoever. One of those was in a short-term bill that expired on Oct. 1. The other they had in the Farm Bill, that Monsanto or anyone else that produced GMO seed could just inform the Secretary of Agriculture about it, and if they didn’t immediately say that’s great, they could go out and plant it anyway. Once you get these things into the environment, it is too late.

In January you were one of many who supported a letter to President Obama regarding the FDA and GMO labeling. What was its purpose?

You’ve seen the president begin to assert his executive authority pretty broadly and very clearly. The administration, if it so chose, could require this on packaging. They’re already changing the nutrition labels to make them more meaningful given new health and dietary concerns that have arisen. They could easily just say “There will be one more line on there to change GMOs.” It isn’t going to cost anything. They’re already going to print the label anyway.

In your opinion, is the Obama Administration addressing the GMO labeling issue?

No. The administration itself I think is confusing GMOs with biotechnology, and therefore they think that they are defending biotechnology as opposed to something that is really very very different. I don’t think they’ve put a lot of thought into it.

Senator Merkley was outraged about the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act being shut down. Do you have any opinions about it?

It was shot down in the senate by the republicans and they say their concern is they didn’t like the way it was paid for. I’m good friends with Bernie Sanders who chairs the veterans subcommittee and he’s going to attempt to bring it back again and work out something on the pay for, and we’ll see if the Republicans were really against it because they didn’t like the pay for or, they just don’t really care about veterans. Given the record of the Bush Administration it could be the former.

What do you think about the current health care provided for veterans in Oregon, specifically the lack of ICU at the VA Hospital in Roseburg?

We had a really bad regional director for the VA who should have been fired or retired decades ago. She was the one who was pushing the agenda of downgrading the hospital there and the former director of the hospital, who was also bad news. Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley and I fought the downgrading of the hospital. We were mostly successful. The only thing we didn’t get, that we wanted, was reopening the ICU. But we kept them from doing other, much more damaging things in terms of the future of the Roseburg hospital. We’re ultimately going to build a veteran’s home on that campus, it would make a lot of sense to have a robust hospital next door.

A few months ago you came to the UO for a forum about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Are there any updates about the TPP?

Big progress. When I was here and did the forum it looked like they were going to try and get it done this month, and that is off the table now. At least until after the election. I’m concerned about what will happen after the election, that is called a lame duck session. That is when Clinton did NAFTA and the WTO. We can’t drop our guard. I’m not declaring total victory, but we have made tremendous progress in the last couple of months and are at least slowing it down if not stopping it.

In 2011 you objected to the Budget Control Act. In recent years have you put any action in place regarding college costs and student loans?

No. The Republicans are in the pocket of the banks. When we took over the house in 2007, we made major reforms to student loans. We stopped subsidising the banks. Wall Street and the banks were weak in 2007, 2008 because of all the destruction they had caused. We said, look, we’re going to lend the money directly to the students, they’ll get lower interest rates, it’ll cost the taxpayers less money and we can build in all sorts of flexibility in terms of repayment.

You don’t have to pay more than a certain percent of your income every year, you don’t have to pay for more than a certain number of years, if you haven’t worked it off by then, we forgive it. You can go into one of many professions or jobs that provide public service and you can get part of your loan forgiven every year. During that so called “Budget Control Act fight” we had the compromise, which I didn’t support. We kept those provisions for undergraduates but they were wiped out for graduate students… At the moment we aren’t going to get a chance to restore those benefits, but what we will be doing is fighting further attempts by the Republicans to gut student financial aid even more.

What is your opinion of the current cost of education in Oregon?

The average debt for a graduating undergraduate is over $20,000 in our public universities. The state has pretty much walked away from its responsibilities to fund higher education. The state should be putting more money in and depending less on jacking up tuition than they have.