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Connecticut Makes History as First State to Pass GE Food Labeling Law

Here's how grassroots advocates beat the biotech and food lobbies.
 
 
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Photo Credit: pogonici/ Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

This week, Connecticut won the honor of becoming the  first state to pass a law requiring genetically-engineered foods to be labeled. (The governor has  indicated he will sign.) It was really only a matter of time. The disappointing defeat of Prop 37 last fall in California (thanks to a massive industry  disinformation campaign) sparked a national movement that has resulted in  labeling bills getting introduced in about half the states.

But how did the small state of Connecticut make this happen?

I spoke at length with the leader of the effort, Tara Cook-Littman of  GMO Free CT, who worked for the past two years as a volunteer. (See the group’s impressive  list of coalition partners.)

She said for a long time, efforts to pass labeling bills went nowhere, but things started to change two years ago once advocates formally organized themselves. While at first she and others “were dismissed as a bunch of crazy moms and environmentalists,” things started to pick up last year “when advocates were able to show themselves to be a serious movement with political power.”

What about the opposition? Cook-Littman said it was formidable, and that industry made all the same fear-mongering arguments we heard last year during Prop 37 in California about higher food prices and confusing consumers.

She and others suspect the biotech industry was funneling money through the trade group, the  Connecticut Food Association, which represents retailers and wholesalers. Also in opposition was the  Grocery Manufacturers Association, the national trade group for food makers, which  firmly stated its opposition to Prop 37 last year, calling it the organization’s “single-highest priority.”

In addition, Cook-Littman told me about the front group industry formed to oppose the bill, called: “ Connecticut Farm to Food.” (For more about front groups, see my recent  report.) This group’s home page claims boldly if inexplicably: “Forced labeling will drive business and science out of Connecticut.” Listed as sponsors are three groups: The Council for Biotechnology Information (a trade group for the biotech industry; its website is: whybiotech.com), the  Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, and the previously-mentioned Grocery Manufacturers Association. In other words, two of these three groups behind this “Connecticut” organization are based in Washington DC.

The toughest opposition though, Cook-Littman said, came from the Connecticut Farm Bureau, which claimed the bill would hurt farmers, despite the bill not even being about farming, but rather food products. “They claimed that farmers’ sales of value-added products would be destroyed if they had to be labeled,” she said. But, as a strong counter-weight, advocates had the support of the state’s numerous organic farmers, led by the  Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, who Cook-Littman called “our truest partner.”

Still, how did this grassroots group fight off such high-powered lobbyists representing at least three major industries – biotech, food retailers, and food manufacturers? She said, “We just got louder.”

What exactly was the turning point for the movement? Cook-Littman said face-to-face meetings with politicians were critical. “We spent a lot of time developing relationships with our representatives. Just spending that time with them was invaluable,” she said.

Also, the group’s social media presence, especially on Facebook, allowed non-paid advocates to engage in less time-consuming ways. “We told our representatives: ‘look at what’s happening on Facebook.’”

And simply showing up in massive numbers when it counted: at two critical rallies, one before the legislative session began, another just weeks ago, along with a huge turnout for the hearing.

Cook-Littman credits the national advocacy group  Food Democracy Now! for being a vital partner in the effort. “We could not have done it without them. They always believed in us, while others discounted us,” she said. “They also helped drive more than 40,000 phone calls to the governor’s office and provided strategic advice along the way.”

 
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