Pressure by local activists helped pass Connecticut's GMO-labeling law

Allen Longendyke, perishable foods buyer for Fiddleheads Food Co-op in New London, organizes incoming merchandise at the store Wednesday.
Allen Longendyke, perishable foods buyer for Fiddleheads Food Co-op in New London, organizes incoming merchandise at the store Wednesday. Tim Cook The Day Buy Photo

The last time Allen Longendyke became politically active, young men his age were being sent to war in Vietnam and he joined the movement in protest.

Now, more than four decades later, the 63-year-old Pawcatuck resident found his dormant activist tendencies reawakened by an issue with a different kind of personal connection.

"I wouldn't buy anything that I knew had GMOs in it," said Longendyke, talking this week after finishing his shift as perishable foods buyer at Fiddleheads Food Co-op in New London. "I just think we should know about what's in food so we can make intelligent choices as consumers."

Longendyke is one of the southeastern Connecticut residents who became involved in the successful grassroots campaign behind the bill signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy this month requiring that foods and seed containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, be labeled.

The bill, which contains several triggers that must be met before it takes effect, makes Connecticut the first state in the nation to adopt such legislation, although similar bills are being considered in two dozen other states. Maine became the second state to pass a GMO labeling bill last week.

"Connecticut is definitely a leader in being the first state," said Rebecca Spector, West Coast director at the nonprofit Center for Food Safety who headed the group's work with campaigns in Connecticut and other states. "This gives other states more of a push to pass their own legislation."

Momentum for labeling bills began building, she said, after last fall's narrow defeat of the Proposition 37 ballot referendum in California that would have required GMO labeling for products sold in the nation's most populous state. The failure of the measure, blamed by supporters on the $45 million campaign against labeling by agriculture and food industry groups, spurred pro-labeling activists across the country to employ social media to start organizing in their own states, Spector said. The movement took hold strongly in the Nutmeg State, with less than one-tenth of California's population.

The grassroots flavor and wide variety of ages and backgrounds that came together in the Connecticut campaign - from mothers with young children to senior citizens, farmers and businesses to environmental groups - was key in helping persuade reluctant lawmakers and Malloy to support the bill in the end, even in the face of warnings from industry groups that the bill was sending an anti-science, anti-biotech message, said two local lawmakers who supported the bill.

In the compromise bill that won out, the GMO labeling requirement will kick in once four other states from the region that includes New England and New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania adopt labeling requirements, and the total population of those states is at least 20 million.

"It was those grassroots activists," said state Sen. Catherine Osten, D-Sprague, adding that the GMO labeling bill was "one of the top 10 issues" of the recent session in terms of public interest and the number of constituents she heard from. "Over and over we heard that people are concerned about what they are consuming. This really was an issue of the people, not driven from the top down, but from the bottom up."

State Rep. Timothy Bowles, D-Ledyard, said while he heard from many voters who wanted labeling, no constituents opposed contacted him.

"It boiled down to a very simple argument - a consumer's right to know," he said. "It's hard to make an argument against that."

In Connecticut, a coalition of groups including GMO Free CT and Food & Water Watch Connecticut used Facebook and other sites to enlist interest in a campaign to coincide with introduction of a bill in the 2013 legislative session. Jen Siskind, Hartford-area organizer for Food & Water Watch, said most of the participants in the grassroots campaign came from three parts of the state - Hartford, Fairfield and New London counties.

"A lot of people are trying to get back to healthier food, and are tired of chemicals in their food and the environment and want to support local farms," she said. "This ties into the culture of the day."

Labeling in 64 countries

Matt Lipman of Waterford, a 29-year-old website and graphic designer for the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, received a Facebook invitation to an organizational meeting at the Bean & Leaf coffee shop in New London a few weeks after the beginning of the new session at the Capitol, and decided to check it out.

"Before this, I've only sat in front of a TV and gotten angry," he said. "But I always wanted to do something. When I went to the meeting, I was surprised by all the interest. There were about 60 people there."

Among them was Meagan Erhart of Lyme, a 24-year-old local coordinator and volunteer for Food & Water Watch who is planning to become a health counselor. As coordinator, she helped organize weekly and biweekly meetings at Bean & Leaf, set up information tables at various local events and enlisted supporters to sign petitions, write letters to Malloy and call key legislators. The group also hosted screenings of documentaries about GMOs.

"There were a massive amount of phone calls and emails from our organization," she said. "There's so much momentum now."

Disgust at the way biotech firms like Monsanto treat small farmers, Erhart said, first got her motivated to eliminate GMO products from her diet, and to support GMO labeling. Then she learned about all the other countries that have labeling requirements, and her motivation intensified.

"They're labeling in 64 other countries," she said. "Why are we being treated differently?"

Both Erhart and Lipman, like others involved in the GMO labeling effort, are highly conscientious about what they eat, checking labels and using cell phone apps that help consumers sort non-GMO producers from companies that have fought GMO labeling, before making purchases.

At stores like Fiddleheads and organic food sections of grocery stores, many products carry "non-GMO" labels, but the vast majority of processed foods in conventional grocery stores don't. According to Spector, about 80 percent of all the processed foods that contain corn or soy ingredients include products raised using genetic engineering, and would have to carry the required label.

"We're just trying to let people have a choice," Erhart said.

As the bill made its way through the legislature, Robert Burns, owner of Aiki Farms in Ledyard, took time away from his five-acre organic vegetable farm to testify at Capitol hearings and organize panel discussions at the Ledyard Congregational Church. For Burns, the main issue is what isn't known about the possible long-term health and environmental effects of consuming foods and planting seeds that have been genetically altered by scientists.

"My main reason for involvement is that the biotech industry has never adequately tested this product," he said.

In his testimony, Burns pointed out that the Board of Directors of the Ledge Light Health District, which serves Groton, East Lyme, New London, Ledyard and Waterford, last year formally adopted a pro-labeling position, becoming the first and perhaps only public health agency in the state to do so. Burns is a member of the Ledge Light board.

"There's been a lot of interest about this in this part of the state," said Baker Salisbury, director of health at Ledge Light. "It is unusual for Ledge Light to take positions on matters of policy that could be considered controversial. The science on this is complex and dense, but the board's position is about the right to choose."

'Sends the wrong message'

The main opposition to the labeling bill came from the Biotechnology Industry Organization, or BIO, a trade group coalition that included grocery store representatives, biotech firms, food processors and growers, said Chris Cooper, Connecticut spokesman for the group. He acknowledged that the "significant grassroots organization" in Connecticut made all the difference, but indicated BIO isn't giving up on making its case.

"We support a voluntary, consumer-driven system of labeling," he said. "We're trying to make people understand that GMO foods are not an ingredient, but a growing technique - gene splicing in a lab. Mandatory labeling suggests that these foods are less healthy or nutritionally different, and the science shows that is not the case. The scientific goal of genetic engineering is to make better, safer, more nutritious food that can feed the world, that's more resistant to disease. The potential for helping with world hunger is there, and it would be a shame to mischaracterize this food by attaching a scarlet letter, without hard scientific facts. This also sends the wrong message to the kinds of biotech companies Connecticut is trying to attract."

As similar labeling bills make their way through legislatures in other states, BIO lobbyists are "on the ground working" against them, said Karen Batra, spokeswoman for BIO. Asked if a lawsuit challenging the Connecticut law is being considered, she replied, "we're looking at our options."

Grassroots supporters in Connecticut, while pleased with their victory, acknowledge that their campaign is far from over. Much work remains ahead, they said, to ensure that similar bills pass in other Northeastern states to trip the triggers in the Connecticut bill.

"We've had a lot of volunteers say, 'what's next?'" said Siskind of Food & Water Watch. "We're asking them to contact family and friends in the other states where bills are pending."

Erhart said the local group that had been meeting at Bean & Leaf during the legislative session will start meeting again next week.

"We definitely want to focus on the other New England states needed for the trigger," she said.

Added Lipman: "Our campaign is far from over."

j.benson@theday.com

Provisions of Public Act 13-183, "An Act Concerning Genetically-Engineered Food" include:

• Producers would be required to label genetically engineered food as long as four states from the New England region adopt a labeling requirement, and the total population of those states is at least 20 million. One of the four states must border Connecticut.

• The requirement applies to food intended for humans, and seed and seed stock intended to produce human food.

• The package must include the words "Produced with Genetic Engineering," in clear and conspicuous type, in the same size and font as the ingredients in the nutritional facts panel.

• The Commissioner of Consumer Protection is responsible for enforcing the requirement.

• Violators can be fined up to $1,000 per day, per product.

Exempt from the law:

• Alcoholic beverages, restaurant meals and prepared foods intended for immediate consumption.

• Farm products sold by a farmer or farmer's agent to a consumer at a pick-your-own farm, roadside stand, on-farm market or farmers' market.

• Food made entirely from animals that were not genetically engineered, regardless of whether the animals were fed genetically engineered food or drugs.

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