Senate, House wrangling over state’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling

Don Tuller is pretty sure what will happen to his Tulmeadow Farm ice cream business if legislation to require labeling of some genetically engineered foods becomes law in Connecticut.

“I think it will probably destroy my wholesale market,” he said.

The sweetened milk and cream mixture he buys from Guida’s Dairy contains some corn syrup, which he figures is probably from corn that is a genetically modified organism — GMO as it is often known. So he’ll either have to label it as containing GMOs -– a possible consumer death sentence — or he’ll have to get a special mix and/or reformulate all 50 flavors he makes.

“It will cost a lot more,” said Tuller who is also president of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, a group that nationally has not supported GMO labeling. He estimates his input costs will rise 25 percent based on conversations with people who provide products to countries that already require GMO labeling. “It’s just going to artificially disrupt the market.”

The U.S. has lagged far behind the rest of the world on policy towards GMOs. The European Union began requiring labeling in 1997. Sixty-four nations now require some form of labeling and a few countries ban GMOs outright. [World map of GMO policies: cfs-ge-labeling-map-march-2013_38812.pdf]

Genetic crop modification is using gene insertion or deletion to produce a particular effect. While it can do things like prevent browning in sliced apples, a product said to be in the approval pipeline, it’s most often used to make crops resistant to pesticides and herbicides.

Among those supporting GMO labeling in Connecticut -– more than 150 of them filed comments for the bill’s initial public hearing –- the often-repeated goal is the right to know what you’re eating. If their effort succeeds Connecticut will become the first state in the nation to require labeling of at least some genetically engineered foods. If not, it will be the second year in a row the effort has fallen short.

“We think the issue is so important and so significant to consumers that we should just do it,” said Martin Mador, legislative and political chairman for the Connecticut chapter of the Sierra Club, which has taken on the GMO fight this year. “It does not regulate agriculture; it does not ban anything. It simply is giving people the ability to know what’s in their food.”

This week state Senate leaders hijacked two languishing house bills on GMOs and re-worked them into their own compromise bill, passing it 35-1. But sources say the legislation will not make it to the House floor without further changes, which are being considered.

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, were among those trying to negotiate a new version of the bill Thursday night night.

Being first has its downside according to those who may not quite oppose GMO labeling.

A trigger

“I’m concerned about our state going out on its own on this and the potential economic disadvantage that could cause,” Sharkey said in a statement that echoed an often-cited objection. “I would like to see us be part of a compact with some other states, which would hopefully include one of the bigger states such as New York.”

Mador disputed that concern.

“Our feeling is once the first state passes it, other states will follow along pretty quickly,” he said.

Malloy’s office said the concerns of those who favor labeling “must be balanced with the needs of Connecticut’s farmers and small businesses, not to mention working families concerned about their grocery bill.”

In an effort to address all of these, the bill sets a trigger. If three states in the region approve similar labeling, Connecticut’s will go into effect in July 2015. If that trigger is not reached, labeling would go into effect in July 2016.

“Some people would like to put on a 15-state trigger,” said Bill Duesing, who recently retired as the executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. He still serves as its “organic advocate” and has been involved in GMO labeling efforts for several years. “A three-state trigger is better than none.”

But it is potentially elusive. The Center for Food Safety, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that has long-supported GMO labeling, lists 25 states that have bills filed to do that. But Rebecca Spector, the center’s west coast director, admits other than Connecticut, only Maine and Vermont are actively considering their legislation.

Last year Vermont’s effort also fell short along with Washington state and the most notable failure — California — where a statewide referendum to require GMO labeling lost.

Another compromise in the Senate bill is a so-called farm exemption. Farmers do not need to label products sold at farm stands, on-farm markets or farmers markets. It’s an exemption that may mean little since the very few GMO crops that are approved are mainly commodity crops like soybeans, feed corn, canola, alfalfa and sugar beets. There is GMO sweet corn, but it’s unknown, though unlikely, whether any is grown here since it’s almost exclusively used for processing -– such as frozen corn.

By far, the majority of products likely to be affected by GMO labeling are thousands of nationally distributed processed items using derivatives of the commodity crops -– anything with corn syrup, canola oil or soy.

For that reason and the extra burden it would put on small farmers like those in Connecticut, Spector said her group supports farm exemptions and exemptions for products from animals that are fed GMO feed. Last year’s Connecticut legislation contained such an animal exemption. This year’s does not, though advocates say because feed is not listed among those items requiring labels, by extension animal products would not need them. But there is confusion about that in the agricultural community –- not to mention concern.

Those who raise animals point out it is next to impossible to purchase non-GMO feed, and what might be available is prohibitively expensive.

The way Robin Chesmer reads it, because the cows on his Graywall Farm, a member of the Farmer’s Cow cooperative, eat grain, he cannot definitely say the milk they produce is free of GMOs and Farmer’s Cow dairy products would have to be labeled.

“To initiate a program like they contemplate, it should be a national program,” he said, also echoing a common objection to state labeling. “It’s going to be very difficult for dairy men in Connecticut if they want to be GMO-free. The national inventory of grains is not segregated.”

Contradictary rules

And to complicate matters, because the bill exempts restaurants and ready-to-eat food, the Farmer’s Cow and Tulmeadow’s Tuller may find themselves with opposite requirements for exactly the same product.

Their ice creams, for instance, wholesaled to grocery stores might require a GMO label but sold as in a cone at the Farmer’s Cow Calfe and Creamery or Tulmeadow’s farmstand would not.

“People who want it labeled,” said Tuller. “I really think that they want it banned. That’s their goal. This is a necessary step in ultimately banning the use of GMOs anywhere and everywhere.”

But it’s the future that has folks on both sides of the argument concerned. “The other thing that’s important about doing this is that there’s so much stuff in the pipeline,” said CTNOFA’s Duesing. “Everything we eat will be genetically engineered if we don’t slow it down.”

But Department of Agriculture spokesman George Krivda saw it the opposite way. “To grow the industry we’re looking at institutional buying,” he said, which would require labeling. “This would put a damper on it.”

The Center for Food Safety’s Spector said if Connecticut does require GMO labels, industry reaction could be interesting. If it were a large state like California, she suspects the result would be a large-scale shift to non-GMO products.

“But how many producers will change their products for a small state?” she asked. “They probably will just use the label.”