By Ariel Schwartz
Monsanto, Bayer, and every other company involved in the genetically modified food business breathed an (expensive) sigh of relief when California's voters failed last year to pass Proposition 37, an initiative that would have required many food items to come with labeling if they contained ingredients "made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways." That bill failed, thanks in large part to the multi-million dollar campaign waged by Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, Pepsico, Bayer, Nestle, and other corporations that would prefer to have GMOs unlabeled.
But GMO legislation is turning into a game of Whac-a-Mole: kill one bill and another pops up in its place. The latest news comes from Connecticut, which is set to pass the first GMO labeling bill in the country--with a few big caveats. The bill will require producers to label products sold in the state that contain GMO ingredients, but there is a catch. It only goes into effect if other states come along for the ride.
The press release for the bill explains: "House Bill 6527 - An Act Concerning Genetically-Engineered Food, will require producers to label genetically-engineered food in Connecticut as long as four states from the New England region with an aggregate population of 20 million also adopt a labeling provision. One of the four states must border Connecticut."
The state defines GMO products as "food that is intended for human consumption and seed that is intended to produce food for human consumption, which has been genetically altered by scientists to improve its ability to grow in non-native environments, resist pests, tolerate extreme weather conditions, produce more food (like milk in cows), or show other desired traits." And the "New England region" includes New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (it's more appropriately called the northeast region in the actual text of the bill).
It seems like a cop-out; why can't Connecticut take the lead on this thing and just ask companies to label their foods now? The state could do that, of course, and companies would have to comply. But waiting for larger neighboring states to pass legislation of their own would lead to larger, perhaps even country-wide, changes. California is large enough that if Prop 37 had passed, it would have basically been a mandate for companies to label GMO products across the U.S.--it would simply be easier that way. A set of bills from the northeast states with 20 million residents in total (California's population is just over 38 million) would be nearly as powerful.
Prop 37 gave the food and farming movement an opportunity to talk about what was wrong with the entire food system. In April, the Organic Consumers Association compiled a list of 25 states working on GMO laws. These include a handful of the applicable where GMO labeling bills are up for discussion, including New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts (there are five GMO-related bills being looked at), and Rhode Island. A GMO labeling amendment was recently defeated in Vermont, but New Yorkjust introduced two GMO-labeling bills late last month. And Arran Stephens, a major supporter of Prop 37 as well as the CEO and cofounder of Nature's Path, is pushing for a GMO labeling bill to get on the November ballot in Washington State. Whac-a-mole.
Paul Towers, the organizing and media director at Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), speculates that much of this momentum comes from California's Prop 37. He explains: "Prop 37 gave the food and farming movement a vehicle, an opportunity to talk about what was wrong with the entire food system, especially around genetically engineered seeds and crops."
But Monsanto and other companies with a vested interest in keeping food products unlabeled will keep on fighting. They certainly have a lot of support in Washington, which may for now be enough to keep the growing anti-GMO movement down. "I do think we will see a tipping point," says Towers. "Really, it's just a matter of time."
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.