Last month, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to pass a bill requiring labels on genetically modified foods.
The legislation will require sellers and producers of genetically modified foods to label their products as such.
But when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the bill into law on June 25, that wasn’t the end of the story.
The law has a caveat, in that a three-part “trigger” must be met before it becomes effective:
-Four other states must enact similar legislation
-One of the four states must share a border with Connecticut
-The combined population of the northeastern states that enact GMO-labeling laws must total more than 20 million in population based on the 2010 census.
The law identifies Maine, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island as the northeastern states. But as of Monday, most of those states have been unable to get their legislation passed, which means Connecticut could wait several years before labeling is required here or anywhere else in the northeast.
Of the eight states, Maine was the only state to pass a GMO-labeling bill this year.
But although Maine Gov. Paul LePage supports the bill, he has said he will not sign it until the next legislative session because of “concerns about the constitutionality of required labeling,” according to a statement issued July 9.
“The Maine Attorney General has raised constitutional questions surrounding the law and has advised the governor that litigation involving the state is highly likely,” Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said.
A statement from the Maine Attorney General Janet Mills pointed to the Commerce Clause, which grants Congress the right to regulate interstate trade, as an issue. In Mills’ letter, she said a state-level GMO-labeling bill unlawfully attempts to pre-empt food regulation by the federal government.
“The legal effort required to defend this law will be complex and very costly,” LePage’s letter reads. “Also, it is very likely there will be litigation in other states very soon.”
No lawsuit has been filed yet against Connecticut. Attorney General George Jepsen declined comment for this article.
Vermont’s H. 112 passed the state House of Representatives by a 99-42 vote on May 9. The bill will be taken up by the Senate when the legislature reconvenes on Jan. 7, 2014.
Vermont has been a longtime battleground over GMO-labeling legislation, and H. 112 sponsor Rep. Kate Webb said biotech lobbyist Margaret Laggis threatened a lawsuit over mandatory GMO-labeling legislation.
Webb said that despite the threat’s ability to stave off action in the past, she expects the bill to pass the senate easily in January.
“There’s very strong support, excellent support in the senate,” she said. “But the next step is contending with the inevitable lawsuit.”
New York also saw GMO legislation during its 2013 session. Because the New York state legislature does not have joint committees, two versions of the bill appeared: one in the Assembly and one in the upper Senate chamber.
New York Sen. Kenneth Lavalle sponsored the Senate’s version of the bill, but it never made it to the Senate’s Consumer Protection Committee.
The Assembly’s bill was killed when it went to a vote in the Committee of Consumer Affairs and Protection on June 3, the same day Connecticut passed its GMO-labeling bill.
New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal said in an interview Friday that the bill fell prey to bad timing and happenstance.
“We were pretty confident going into the committee hearing it would get voted out, but at the last moment there were a couple of snafus and some people who would have voted for the bill couldn’t make it in time for the vote,” she said. “It was also brought up so late in the session and [members] were distracted.”
Rosenthal said even getting the bill on a committee calendar was a victory in New York. She said even though the bill failed, it’s the first time legislation of its kind made it to the floor of a committee.
But Rosenthal said she is still optimistic. The committee will hold a public hearing on July 30 to hear testimony about the bill, and the months before the New York General Assembly reconvenes in January will give Rosenthal “plenty of time to work on it and its provisions.”
Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat in Pennsylvania’s 17th senate district, proposed S.B. 653 in April this year. The bill died in committee, but Leach said he believes the bill would pass if it made it to the Senate floor.
“The Republicans control the legislature in Pennsylvania. They won’t move this bill. It will be an election issue this cycle,” he said.
Leach said he plans to continue proposing the bill, but he said as long as Republicans keep control of the legislature, they won’t “do anything to upset corporate America.” He said Republicans would be hesitant to upset Monsanto, the Missouri-based company that is the largest manufacturer of genetically modified seeds in the world.
“And Monsanto doesn’t like the GMO bill,” Leach said.
Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, a Monsanto spokesperson, said Monsanto has long opposed mandatory GMO-labeling laws because “it could be interpreted as a warning or imply that these ingredients are harmful or somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.”
“The valuable real estate on packaging should be reserved for information that involves safety concerns,” Kapsak said.
New Jersey’s bill was co-sponsored by nine assembly people. The bill was reported out of committee, but never made it to the floor.
A legislative aide for Assemblyman Timothy Eustace — a co-sponsor of the bill — said the version New Jersey considered this year did not include a trigger clause, and leadership of the New Jersey General Assembly was hesitant to bring the bill to the floor.
“There was bipartisan disagreement,” the legislative aide said. “There were economic concerns regarding imports and exports.”
The concerns echoed those raised by Connecticut House Speaker Brendan Sharkey before a trigger clause was added to the bill.
Unlike most northeastern states, New Jersey will hold elections this fall. Eustace’s legislative aide said the tumult from re-election campaigns makes the bill’s outlook difficult to gauge, but he said bill’s primary sponsor — Assemblywoman Linda Stender — is committed to the legislation and intends to propose it again.
Massachusetts saw four bills during its 2013 legislative session regarding GMOs. Two of the bills — H. 808 and H. 2037 — addressed mandatory labeling of GMO foods. Both of the bills died in committee.
State Rep. Todd Smola proposed H. 808 and has proposed similar legislation perennially for over five years. But Smola said the GMO-labeling debate in Massachusetts is still eclipsed by bigger issues.
But Smola said as the issue garners media attention, more people are taking up the cause.
“Right now I’m working on a coalition with the other bills’ sponsors and bringing them together on the issue,” he said. “There is a small, steady stream of support for the legislation.”
House Bill 660 was proposed during Vermont’s legislative session this year, but never made it out of the House’s Environment and Agriculture Committee.
In Rhode Island, House Bill 5278 was proposed by five representatives. The state’s House Committee on Health, Education, and Welfare tabled the bill on April 24 and held it “for further study.”
As for meeting Connecticut’s trigger, Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said she is still confident other northeastern states will follow Connecticut’s lead.
“We knew the sessions were on different timelines in different states,” she said. “But I’m confident that New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania . . . they’re on the precipice.”
Urban said she expects it will take about two years to meet the trigger, but in the meantime she plans to reintroduce a bill that would require GMO labels on baby food products. And that bill would not include a trigger.
GMO products have been in the marketplace since 1995, but a conversation regarding the science and safety of the products has taken the national stage in recent years.
More than 60 countries around the globe require labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients, but in the U.S. only voluntary labeling identifies GMOs in the marketplace.
Advocates of the legislation, which typically are grassroots organizations and coalitions, maintain that labeling GMO products allows consumers to make informed decisions.
The advocates accuse the producers of genetically modified seeds and food products of opposing GMO-labeling laws because of the potential losses the companies may see should consumers begin avoiding their products.
Bill Duesing, the owner of the organic Old Solar Farm in Oxford and a member of the Right to Know GMO Connecticut coalition, said at a rally in Hartford in May that GMO seed companies such as Monsanto and DuPont and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have used heavy lobbying to ward off labeling laws for years.
GMOs are an “example of the kind of corporate control that power and money can exert,” Duesing said.
New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal said the presence of corporate lobbyists was definitely a hurdle to getting movement on New York’s bill.
Urban, a proponent of Connecticut’s bill, agreed that during the years she fought for GMO-labeling legislation in the House, lobbyists were ever-present.
But it’s not just the seed companies and grocery manufacturers that are opposed to mandatory GMO-labeling. Last year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a statement opposing labeling requirements.
The AAAS is an international nonprofit that publishes the Science journal. It’s board of directors includes affiliates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Whitehead Institute for biomedical research at MIT.
According to its October 2012 statement, “current efforts to require labeling of GM foods are not being driven by any credible scientific evidence that these foods are dangerous.”
The University of Connecticut does not do its own testing or research on genetically modified foods, but Bonnie Burr of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension System said the university stands behind the AAAS’s stance on the issue.
“There’s a lot of emotion involved with this issue,” Burr said. “We stand on peer-reviewed research that has been fully vetted.”
Burr said GMOs are too often misunderstood, and the technology has a positive side. She said GMOs can help address the world’s food demands that are expected to double by 2050 as a result of the fast-growing world population.
Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, Monsanto’s spokesperson, said genetically modified seeds provide a diversity to farmers that will increase their crop yield. She said using various strands of the same crop that are resistant to different adversities can provide farmers with a level of security.
But Rep. Phil Miller, D-Essex, who helped champion Connecticut’s GMO-labeling bill, said the scientific testing and research that comes from universities should be held up to scrutiny. He pointed to a corn research program at Yale that was funded by Monsanto.
Miller said that because universities receive corporate funding, they directly benefit from endorsing products that they claim to be testing.
“It’s a system that is compromised,” he said. “That’s what Monsanto does. They drop five hundred grand a year at Yale, and they do something similar at Penn and Brown to make it look legitimate. They do have legitimate people doing that research, but it’s all just a front.”
Kapsak said arguments that GMO products are not adequately tested are false. She said that even though many products are patented and therefore are not available for independent parties to test, genetically engineered substances are the most heavily-tested products on the market.
“We stand by the safety of our products,” Kapsak said. “And if you’re going to stand by the safety of your product, you better have done the testing.”