A bill that would mandate labels on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients passed the House Monday, making Connecticut the first state in the nation to pass this type of legislation.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are crops that have been manually altered using modern technology in order to be resistant to herbicides and pesticides or take on other characteristics such as a longer shelf-life. Connecticut’s legislation came in response to a national campaign to mandate labels on foods that contain GMOs.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy joined activists and House and Senate leadership to celebrate the bill’s passage, assuring them that the bill’s last step before enactment – his signature – would not be an issue.
“This is important stuff. . . and I think the rest of the world is starting to understand that,” Malloy said. “I know a lot of you are surprised. I’m not. I saw it coming. It’s an appropriate thing to do.”
Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said the bill would make a “critical difference.”
“We have made history in the state of Connecticut, and this issue is so important in terms of the safety of our food supply and the health of the men, women, and children in this country,” Williams said. “We know these GMO foods are tied directly to increased use of herbicides and pesticides that are wreaking havoc in our environment.”
The issue was whether to allow the law to go into effect automatically, or tack on a “trigger” that would require neighboring states to pass similar legislation before Connecticut’s law would become effective. The idea behind the trigger, as House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said, is to ensure that Connecticut won’t “stand alone” with the bill and cause undesirable economic consequences.
But the House and Senate resolved their differences last week when compromise legislation was passed by the Senate. The new version requires that four other states pass similar legislation in order to “trigger” Connecticut’s labeling requirement. One of the states must share a border with Connecticut and their combined population must equal at least 20 million people.
If the trigger is met, sellers or distributors who sell products containing GMOs that are not labeled would be subject to a daily $1,000 fine per product and the Department of Consumer Protection would be able to embargo the products.
Sharkey said he was pleased with the compromise.
“We were able to come together and compromise to protect consumers and the economy in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “I think it’s a tremendous achievement.”
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said the reason the bill came back after hitting so many legislative roadblocks was because of the grassroots activism that was louder than ever this session.
“Everyone was committed to making sure we got something passed,” he said. “Sitting down, doing the hard work, listening to the advocates, and getting the bill passed…[the advocates] are the reason.”
The bill received bipartisan support, passing the Senate unanimously and winning a 134-3 vote in the House.
Though the compromise weakens the Senate’s original bill, which would have gone into effect in 2016 regardless of whether other states were on board, the advocates that pressed the legislators for action said they support it.
Tara Cook-Littman, the face of the Right to Know GMO campaign in Connecticut, has spent the past two years lobbying for GMO-labeling legislation. She said was “thrilled” about the legislation and is not concerned about the trigger clause.
“This is a very strong bill . . . it represents the highest standard developed by GMO-labeling leaders throughout the country,” Cook-Litmann said. “To all those concerned about the trigger clause, we have nothing to fear.”
Rep. Diana Urban, one of the bill’s main proponents, said Maine, New Jersey, and New York are “well on their way to passing similar legislation.”
“This is history,” Urban said. “It’s a doable trigger, and I am just thrilled. Sixty-two other countries either ban [GMOs] or label them, and we’re the first in the nation to stand up and do this.”
Sharkey added that passing this bill is instrumental in getting other states to follow suit.
“The hardest thing that we can ever do is get that very first state to say to the country that this is the way we as a people want to see our country go, and Connecticut is going to lead the way,” he said.
Activists that lead GMO-labeling advocacy groups in Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all traveled to Hartford to celebrate with the Connecticut advocates. and said they are hopeful Connecticut’s bill will help push proposed legislation in their own states through.
Jim Garrison, a potato farmer and a member of Maine’s Right to Know GMO coalition, said the Maine House of Representatives may vote on a GMO-labeling bill as early as Friday and the bill has 123 co-sponsors.
Martin Dagoberto, a member of the Massachusetts Right to Know GMO coalition, said he felt Connecticut’s action would pressure other states to follow suit.
“This win for Connecticut is a win for all of us,” Dagoberto said. “It feeds our collective momentum, and we will not be stopped. The trigger clause is nothing more than a way to encourage other states to share the burden of defending the integrity of our democracy and our food supply because powerful corporate interests want to keep us in the dark.”
GMO-labeling legislation has also been proposed in the lower house of the New York State Legislature, a state Urban said is instrumental in getting on board because of its big economy, but no votes have been taken yet.