Christine Stuart photo
Connecticut business owners, legislators, farmers, and residents rallied outside the capitol Tuesday morning to press state legislators to move on a bill that would require labels on genetically modified foods.

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Their calls were answered Tuesday night when the state Senate took up a bipartisan compromise that will require all genetically engineered foods to be labeled as such by July 1, 2016, or by July 1, 2015, if three more states pass similar legislation. The states that would trigger the provision include Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey.

The bill that passed the Senate 35-1 applies to wholesale and retail food, produce, and seeds that are produced — whole or in part — with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and requires them to be labeled as “Produced with Genetic Engineering.” The legislation would not apply to “ready-to-eat” foods, such as those served at a restaurant or food stand. Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, was the lone vote against the measure.

GMOs are crops that have been modified using biotechnology to be resistant to certain herbicides and pesticides. GMO production proliferated in the U.S. after the federal Food and Drug Administration said GMOs are “not inherently dangerous” in 1992. Today, the majority of GMO plants in the U.S. are corn, canola, soybean, and cotton — some of which are typically used as ingredients in other food products.

But since genetically modified crops have made their way into the food supply, concern has been elicited internationally over potential health side effects. Currently, more than 60 countries mandate labels for GMO foods.

Tara Cook-Littman, the face of the Right to Know GMO campaign and founder of GMO Free CT, said they aren’t seeking a ban on GMO products, but that labeling is about keeping transparency in the food industry and giving the public the “right to make their own decision.”

“We are fighting for our right to know what’s in our food. Connecticut has the opportunity to lead the country by passing a GMO labeling law,” Cook-Littman said.

Although more than 30 states have proposed similar legislation, no U.S. state currently mandates labels for GMO foods. The bill has been introduced four times in Connecticut over the past few years, but this year it has been met with bipartisan support among House and Senate members.

Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, who spearheaded the GMO labeling bill when it was first introduced four years ago, called the legislation the “public health fight of a generation.”

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, also expressed his support for the legislation.

“This is about becoming educated,” McKinney said. “When you buy a bottle of Roundup that kills weeds at Home Depot, and you read the warning label and understand that that’s getting into our food system, you know something is going wrong.”

The bill has substantial support in the House as well, but the legislation does not have a clear path to enactment.

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said that although there is a consensus among representatives to hear the bill, he has reservations about the version the Senate passed. Sharkey pointed out that even if none of the “trigger” states adopt GMO labeling legislation, Connecticut’s law would still go into effect in 2016.

“I’ve always supported this bill, but my questions is: ‘What would the trigger be?’” Sharkey said. “I’ve stated all along that to me the most critical piece of the legislation in question is whether Connecticut should stand alone in the labeling requirement and what economic impacts that would have.” Sharkey added that he would like to see more than three states act as a trigger, and that New York — with one of the largest economies in the nation — was an important state to have signed on. “We weren’t brought into the conversation about what the Senate is actually running. There’s a substantial chance that we’re going to be making substantial changes to it here in the House.”

Andrew Doba, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s communications director, said the governor has concerns that echo Sharkey’s.

“Those that favor the labeling provision are passionate in their pursuit — the governor has heard and appreciates their concerns,” Doba said. “Those concerns must be balanced with the needs of Connecticut’s farmers and small businesses, not to mention working families concerned about their grocery bill. Connecticut is part of a national and global economy, and any solution must recognize that fact. The governor believes that finding the right balance is essential.”

The Connecticut Department of Agriculture echoed these concerns when it testified before the Public Health Committee about a similar bill in March.

“Enacting labeling requirements on Connecticut producers when no other states require them will place Connecticut farmers at a competitive disadvantage,” the department said in a statement.

But organic farmers like Bill Duesing, who owns Old Solar Farm in Oxford, Conn., favor the legislation. Duesing jointed the Right to Know GMO coalition as the executive director of CT NOFA, Connecticut’s branch of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

“There’s so much genetically modified food on the horizon,” Duesing said. “We need to know more about our food, be more closely connected, and have more control over our food.”

But the Connecticut United for Research Excellence — a member-funded network of bioscientists, business experts, and investors — said there is science backing the opposition. Paul Pescatello, the chair of CURE’s Bioscience Growth Council, said there has been enough scientific research to assure the safety of GMOs and mandating labels will cause undue consumer fear of those products.

“We think the science is definitely weighted in favor of GMO foods,” Pescatello said. “The only way to feed the 9 billion people [that will be on Earth] by 2050 is to use science properly to increase crop yields.”

Pescatello did not cite a specific study, but pointed to the fact that the FDA and World Health Organization has deemed GMOs safe for consumption as an indication that health concerns about GMOs are unwarranted.

But Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, said the scientific community has not come to a consensus on GMO safety because patents on GMO seeds prevent it.

“Research restrictions prevent researchers from taking action. Even if a [scientist] gets access to a GMO seed [because] the manufacturer has permitted it, federal law allows the company to put restrictive controls [on the research] and allows them to decide whether it can be made public,” Bartolomeo said.

For organic farmers like Duesing and Bob Burns, the founder of an organic farm in Ledyard, Conn. the GMO debate is an “example of the kind of corporate control that power and money exert.”

Duesing said money and lobbyists employed by multi-billion dollar companies like Monsanto and DuPont — the two leading producers of genetically modified plant seeds — are holding back legislation regulating GMOs.

“Those two companies are responsible for making lots of pesticides. And many of the genetic modifications encourage more herbicide use,” Duesing said.

According to a survey conducted by NPR and Reuters in 2010, some 9 out of 10 Americans said they favored GMO labeling.