GMO labeling advocates celebrate, and turn focus to other states

Shortly after the bill they endorsed got pulled “out of the legislative graveyard,” the grass-roots network of advocates pushing for labels on genetically engineered food gathered to cheer about it Monday.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy showed up and congratulated them. But, characteristically, he pointed to the next thing on the agenda.

“You better go win in some other states right now,” Malloy told the crowd.

Advocates lauded the bill’s passage in the Senate Saturday and the House Monday as a groundbreaking win. But under its terms, the requirement that food containing genetically modified organisms be labeled won’t occur until a “trigger” is met: Four other states in the Northeast with a population of 20 million must pass a similar law, and one of those four must border Connecticut.

Tara Cook-Littman, a Fairfield food blogger who has led the GMO Free Connecticut effort, said she’s not worried.

“To those concerned about the trigger clause, we have nothing to fear,” she told advocates. “The Connecticut GMO labeling law will be a catalyst for states throughout the country to join us.” 

There are similar bills pending in Pennsylvania, Maine and Massachusetts, and several “GMO labeling warriors,” as Cook-Littman called them, said they were hopeful that their states would join Connecticut.

The Washington-based Center for Food Safety called the bill “precedent setting,” but criticized the trigger provision. The group’s executive director, Andrew Kimbrell, said in a statement that the trigger “unnecessarily puts on hold what consumers and lawmakers have already validated as important legislation.”

The group said 64 countries require labeling of genetically engineered foods, and said recently introduced federal legislation would also call for nationwide labeling.

Opponents of the measure have said that labeling could confuse consumers, and that it could hurt Connecticut’s reputation with the biotechnology industry, something leaders have looked to as a source for jobs.

Unexpected celebration

The gathering, held in a room down the hall from the Senate chamber at the state Capitol, was part celebration, part campaign rally, part homage to the power of grass-roots campaigning and bipartisanship, with a little bit of reassurance in the mix.

A week ago, Cook-Littman said, she wouldn’t have predicted there would be reason to celebrate with state leaders.

Malloy said he knew better.

“You might be surprised that you got to this day,” he the crowd. “I’m not. I saw it coming.”

The state Senate passed a bill that anti-GMO advocates supported last month, calling for labeling in 2016 or sooner if other states passed similar measures.

But Malloy and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, worried that Connecticut could end up the only state with such a requirement, potentially driving up food prices.

A more restrictive version of the bill passed the House May 24. It would have exempted nearly all local food producers, and would only have taken effect if New York and fourth other states with a total population of 25 million passed similar measures.

Some supporters in the legislature were content to leave it there, figuring they had a foot in the door and could amend the proposal later, Rep. Phil Miller-D-Essex, told the crowd. But, he noted, advocates weren’t. “All of you said, ‘No, we still have eight or nine days to the session, let’s advocate to do it right,’” he said.

Advocates pushed, with thousands of phone calls.

On Saturday, the Senate passed a new compromise, minimizing the growers exempt from the requirements and reducing the requirements for the trigger. The House followed suit Monday.

Cook-Littman praised the two Senate leaders, President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams, Jr., a Democrat from Brooklyn, and Minority Leader John McKinney, a Republican from Fairfield, for pulling the bill “out of the legislative graveyard,” twice.


The event gave leaders a chance to bask in a moment of bipartisanship and highlight what they called the power of the grass-roots effort.

“In this day and age, there is so much talk and cynicism about politics and about government, where so many people who want change say, ‘Oh heck, what’s the use? They’re not listening anyway,’” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, Jr., R-Norwalk. “I want to congratulate all of you because you have proven them wrong. It matters when you care. It matters when you fight, and you’ve made a difference.”

“Don’t stop here,” he urged them. “Don’t stop with just this issue.”

Sharkey alluded to the previous regard the bill’s advocates had for him when he referenced his “alter ego” while pulling from a paper shopping bag a Darth Vader helmet. It’s now returning to the bag, he assured his audience.

He said the concerns about the previous version of the bill were legitimate, but that by working together, leaders came up with a bill that protects consumers and the economy. And he likened the bipartisan process behind the proposal to one earlier in the year that produced legislation addressing gun violence, mental health and school safety, inspired by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

McKinney, meanwhile, made a point to single out former Rep. Richard Roy, who he described as the first member of the legislature in his memory to introduce a bill about genetically modified foods.

And he thanked the crowd. “Your hard work, your advocacy is the reason this bill is being signed by the governor,” he said.