Food Fight

Zinke and Tester would be wise to focus on passing policy that helps people, farmers and eaters

By Mike Jopek

If political rumors come true, Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke will challenge two-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in the 2018 election. Zinke would likely first have to win reelection next fall and fend off any potential primary election challengers.

Zinke has worked hard in Montana during the recesses to talk with statewide constituents. Two recent policies in Washington indicated that there might be more to these speculative rumors.

During his campaign, Zinke made a big point to say that he supported the framework of the Republican balanced budget. Last fall’s budget framework was similar to the plan Congress agreed upon, yet Zinke recently voted in opposition.

The Republican budget plan calls for $5 trillion in cuts to balance the federal budget over the decade. Benefits in programs like Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps would likely see the bulk of cuts in balancing the federal budget deficit.

Following the vote, Zinke tweeted, “I just voted no on S. Con. Res. 11 –FY2016 Budget. I will not tolerate selling our #publiclands.” In a statement Zinke said, “Repealing ObamaCare and balancing the budget remain on top of my list of priorities, however I will never tolerate our land being sold or transferred.”

Sen. Jon Tester likewise voted against the Republican budget plan and tweeted, “This budget is bad for Montana because it opens the door to the sale of our public lands.”

Sen. Steve Daines voted for the Republican balanced budget plan that passed the Senate with 51 votes.

Another action in Washington that helped frame my attention toward a potential race between these two Montanans was Zinke’s recent co-sponsorship of Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo’s bill to block states from requiring that foods processed from bioengineered organisms be labeled.

States like Vermont have passed laws to mandate labeling of GMO foods. Connecticut and Maine will only enact with other state support. Citizen food movements across the nation have pushed ballot initiatives for mandatory labeling, many nearly passing.

Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont tried to again amend the federal Farm Bill to clarify a state’s right to label food products containing genetically engineered materials. Tester supported the Sanders amendment.

Zinke’s bill ends a state’s right to label food products containing bioengineered organisms. Some of these laboratory gene alterations to patented seeds hold claims to reduce carcinogens when potatoes are fried or slow browning when apples are sliced. Other seeds have genes engineered to allow growing food to tolerate direct applications of weed killers.

Tester is one of a handful of working famers and the only organic farmer in Congress. Tester is an active proponent of small and large farmers across the state and nation.

Tester sided with GMO sugar beet farmers when they nearly lost taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance in the last Farm Bill, yet has been very active on growing lentil, dry pea and chickpea markets.

A decade ago as a state lawmaker, Tester introduced a bill to establish liability for injury caused by the introduction of genetically engineered wheat into Montana. Over the decade, Tester became effective on real food issues.

I’ve talked with Zinke at several Whitefish farmers markets, served with him in past state Legislatures, and worked with him to permanently protect many acres of state public land around town.

I’ve also served with Tester and he’s been to the same markets. I’ve witnessed his base-building leadership style in the state Senate, worked with him to protect those same and more public lands, plus skunked him at cribbage over a beer. He’d likely challenge my memory of that big pegging loss margin.

It’s a long way until the midterms of 2018. Zinke and Tester would be wise to focus on passing policy that helps people, farmers and eaters. The Flathead, Montana, and the nation need leaders who govern.

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