Connecticut became the first state in the nation to pass a GMO labeling law on Monday, but food advocates and those who are concerned about what they eat shouldn’t bust out the (organic) bubbly just yet.
Though the mere fact that the Connecticut General Assembly passed a GMO labeling bill is a step in the right direction, the full story is a disturbing reminder of how powerful the biotech lobby really is.
Food advocates have long called on the federal government and state legislatures to enact laws to require food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled as such. And for some time this year it appeared as though Connecticut was on track to do just that, as many lawmakers had publicly endorsed a strongly worded GMO labeling bill.
But instead, lobbyists led by Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON) and the Biotechnology Industry Organization trade association succeeded in neutering the law by launching a large-scale lobbying campaign aimed at state lawmakers, who were convinced in part by the lobby to add requirements that two triggers be met in order for the law to go into effect.
In order for a GMO labeling regime to begin in Connecticut, the new law requires that four other states, including one bordering Connecticut, pass similar laws; and that any combination of other Northeast region states with a combined population of more than 20 million must also have passed similar laws.
That means that though the Nutmeg State is the first to pass a GMO labeling law -- which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is expected to sign, by the way -- it will not require foods containing genetically engineered products to be labeled unless New York, Massachusetts or Rhode Island (for starters) does the same.
State Rep. Phil Miller was one of the bill’s leading sponsors, and he said Monsanto and other biotech companies and organizations “hired an army of lobbyists to discredit our efforts,” according to the Hartford Advocate.
But the biotech lobby didn’t get everything it wanted, as a previous version of the bill with more onerous requirements was amended to remove a rule exempting farms with less than $1.5 million in gross sales from the labeling requirements.
The previous version of the bill would also have required five states with a total population of 25 million people including New York and New Jersey to enact similar laws before Connecticut’s would go into effect.
The watering down of those requirements to the level that was passed Monday has alleviated the criticism that many anti-GMO advocates, like GMO Free CT founder Tara Cook Littman, leveled against the earlier, more stringent requirements.
When the five-state, 25 million people version passed out of the state’s House of Representatives, Cook Littman was livid.
“It would exempt the majority of farmers in the U.S.,” she said at the time, according to the Advocate. “We would rather have no bill at all than a fake bill.”
But after the final version passed, the Advocate reported that she said it was “substantially better” than the stricter version, and said that it “can serve as a catalyst” for other states like New York, Washington and Oregon that are considering such legislation.
State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Republican, agreed that the bill approved Monday could prove to be a model for other states looking for ways to label GMOs.
"Somebody has to go first and say it's OK to do it with some kind of trigger," McKinney said, according to the Connecticut Post. "This gives great momentum for advocates in Pennsylvania and New York, for example, for GMO labeling, because if they're successful in New York we'll probably see it along the entire East Coast."
The lobbying campaign surely had an impact on lawmakers’ decision to insert triggers into the bill, but concerns about litigation likely also played a part in their thinking.
Vermont legislators are also considering a GMO labeling bill, and Vermont state Rep. Tom Koch, a Republican, explained why he opposes the Green Mountain State being the first state to pass a bill that actually enacts a GMO labeling requirement, though he would support such a law if another state went first.
“The only problem I have with it is that I’m sure it will be challenged in court and will cost probably a couple million dollars to defend it, win, lose or draw,” Koch told the International Business Times last month. “And that’s my problem. I think we have a good chance of losing.”
Still, the headlines lauding Connecticut lawmakers for being brave enough to enact the nation’s first sweeping GMO labeling law should be taken with a grain of salt.
In the end, they were still convinced to forgo a strong bill in favor of a law that does nothing on its own but puts Connecticut on the map as the first state to take a stab at labeling genetically engineered products. The law does nothing unless other states follow Connecticut’s lead.