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U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson. Forum News Service file photo

Peterson: Ag's plate is crowded

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is worried about food labeling efforts, concerned about a proposed international trade agreement and looking ahead to the next farm bill.

Peterson is garnering national attention for his support of Bernie Sanders, but thinks Donald Trump would be a better president, at least for agricultural interests, than Ted Cruz.

"I'd be more comfortable with him (Trump) than Cruz," said Peterson, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. Peterson spoke Tuesday on Capitol Hill with members of North American Agricultural Journalists during the group's annual convention.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Ag Committee, and Sen. Deb Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the the Senate Ag Committee, also spoke to ag journalists. Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ag Committee, was scheduled to speak, too, but couldn't attend because of transportation problems.

Peterson, generally considered a moderate Democrat, has surprised many political observers with his support of Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate known for his liberal positions. But Peterson said Democrats in his staunchly Republican district support Sanders, and he feels obligated to do the same.

"I'm getting letters from all over the United States, praising me," Peterson said.

He said he agrees with Sanders on some, but not all, issues. "I don't agree with anyone all the time," he said.

Hillary Clinton, who's also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, has some understanding of agriculture, reflecting her background in Arkansas, Peterson said.

Trump is "a big-picture guy" who "would hire good people," Peterson said.

In contrast, Cruz, the Texas Republican senator who's running against Trump, is a vocal critic of federal farm programs that U.S. farmers need, Peterson said.

One of the biggest battles underway in agriculture involves proposed national labeling standards for GMO foods, or food containing ingredients that have been genetically modified. GMO critics worry about the safety of such foods, and say individual states should be able to require that food manufacturers label them.

GMO supporters say such foods are safe and advocate a single, national GMO labeling law to supersede state laws. Supporters argue that a "patchwork" of state laws would be too costly for manufacturers.

"A voluntary trade labeling system would be the best solution," Peterson said. "I think the marketplace will sort this out."

He thinks too much attention is given to food labeling in general. "All this stuff (proposed and existing labeling) is marketing," designed to help some food producers and companies sell their product, he said.

"I think the biggest problem we have in agriculture is, all of this labeling stuff," he said. "It's not just GMO. It's everything. It's dividing agriculture. There's no good outcome out of all this discussion."

Not a ‘great win for trade’

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific countries also is a contentious issue. The TPP, as it's often called in ag circles, would reduce foreign tariffs on U.S. ag exports and make them affordable to foreign consumers.

U.S negotiators have agreed to the TPP, but Congress hasn't ratified it.

Peterson said the TPP has serious flaws.

"This is not a free trade agreement for agriculture," he said. "It's a managed trade agreement. I don't think this is a great win for trade."

Peterson also talked about the next farm bill, the centerpiece of the nation's food and farm policy. The current bill will expire and need to be renewed or updated.

"We're waiting for next year, we'll get started on the next farm bill," he said. "I think it (writing and approving the next one) will be very difficult."

Low commodity prices, combined with strong and growing interest from people and organizations outside ag, will complicate efforts to write the next farm bill, Peterson said.

Roberts said it's premature to speculate about the next farm bill.

He and other ag advocates are "always fighting regulations" that potentially could handcuff farmers and ranchers. He read from proposed legislation involving organic eggs that would require producers to "train chickens to go outdoors."

Such regulations make little, if any, economic or agricultural sense, Roberts said.

He and Stabenow said they work well together and limit the extent to which partisanship affects the Senate Ag Committee.

Stabenow advocated giving consumers as many choices and options as possible, while also relying on sound science in setting farm policy.