How to pass a state GMO labeling bill

By Ken Roseboro
Published: July 31, 2013

Category: GM Food Labeling and Regulations

How to pass state gmo labeling bill

Tara Cook-Littman (center) of GMO-Free Connecticut speaking at the Connecticut legislature.

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GMO-Free Connecticut’s Tara Cook-Littman describes how she and her team helped pass the first bill to label genetically engineered foods in the United States.

Tara Cook-Littman is the founder of GMO-Free Connecticut. She is an attorney and former New York City prosecutor. She received certification as a Holistic Health Counselor from the Integrative Institute for Nutrition in New York City and has a private practice as a health counselor. Above all else, Tara says she is a mother to three young children and is married to Owen Littman.

What made you want to pass a labeling law in Connecticut?

Cook-Littman: It was a personal thing for me. I have three children and, as a mother, I want to make sure my family eats healthy foods.

I also felt that the monopolization of the food supply by the biotechnology industry was wrong.

There had been GMO labeling bills kicking around the Connecticut legislature for 10 years. They didn’t go anywhere because there was no grassroots movement to take on the corporations and farm groups. But this year the people got loud enough that we were able to overpower the corporations.

GMO labeling is also a symbol of taking back our government from corporate interests. It’s about people taking back power and getting lawmakers to take action in the interests of the people and not corporations.

If we don’t use our voices it’s not democracy. We proved in Connecticut that we do have power and can make democracy work.

GMO labeling is a declaration of food independence.

What did you do differently this year than you had done previous years to get the labeling bill passed?

Cook-Littman: The big difference was that we got louder and bigger and had a lobbyist. Before that it was difficult to combine the inside game within the legislature and outside game with the grassroots. You need legislators to get the bill through and activists working on the grassroots to get a controversial bill like this through. Until we had both, a labeling bill wouldn’t go anywhere.

We also realized it takes time to pass bills like this. We needed time to establish relationships with the legislators. We had constituents all over Connecticut establishing relationships with their legislators.

Having educational events was also important. We held over 100 events in the past legislative session. We invited legislators to the events and asked them to say a few words afterward. When the legislators heard their constituents concerns about GMOs, they had no choice but to say “of course I support their right to know.”

Who were your opponents to the labeling bill and what actions did they take to stop it?

Cook-Littman: The biotech industry and Grocery Manufacturers Association formed a front group called Connecticut Farm to Food to stop the labeling bill. They weren’t about either farm or food.

They took out full-page ads in newspapers that said consumers’ grocery bills would increase by $400 per year; the same things they said in California in their campaign against Proposition 37.

The Farm Bureau was also a big opponent and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association said that labeling would drive business and science out of Connecticut.

There were so many lobbyists in the capital opposing us. Our lobbyist was on his own dealing with all of them.

The opposition worked the governor very hard to oppose the bill. He did buy into their arguments that Connecticut was too small to pass its own bill and that it was bad for the state’s farmers even though very few grow GMOs. That’s why he insisted on a trigger clause (that would require four other states to pass similar labeling laws before Connecticut’s took effect).

But I give him credit; he signed the bill. He tried to take all considerations into account.

Do you think the trigger clause will be difficult to overcome?

Cook-Littman: We will see most of the Northeast states pass labeling laws within 12 to 18 months. Vermont should pass their bill easily when their legislative session picks up again in January. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all have active bills and vibrant GMO labeling grassroots campaigns.  

I’m confident. We are all working together in the Coalition of States for GMO Labeling. I have faith in other state leaders. If we did it in Connecticut, they can do it in other states.

If enough states pass labeling laws, then the federal government will have no choice but to pass a law.

We’ve already tipped the dominoes, and there’s no going back.

Who were your allies?

Cook-Littman: We had wonderful allies. Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Connecticut and the Sierra Club are true partners.

We received support from national groups. Food Democracy Now was very supportive. The Institute for Responsible Technology provided educational materials, and Jeffrey Smith spoke to and educated activists. The Organic Consumers Association pitched in, and the Alliance for Natural Health and the Center for Food Safety helped with the legal language of the bill.

The Vermont Law School provided a memorandum on why GMO labeling at the state level is constitutional, and why a state would prevail if it was sued.

What did you do to persuade lawmakers to support the bill?

Cook-Littman: Education was key. We had many one-on-one meetings with the legislators describing what GMOs are, and why we have the right to know whether they’re in our food. We described the health risks and environmental impacts. We would leave them articles about GMOs.

We worked a long time to diligently educate them, and that persuaded them. They listened and heard us.

Any other key factors to getting the bill passed?

Cook-Littman: Social media such as Facebook and Twitter were a huge factor in getting the masses to speak up.

We had rallies to turn out the masses. We sent out action alerts at critical moments, and had legislators’ phones ringing off the hook.

At one point the Connecticut House of Representatives weakened the bill. How were you able to counteract that?

Cook-Littman: The House speaker didn’t support the bill and neither did the governor. The president of the senate and the Republican minority leader of the senate decided to call the bill themselves, and they passed a beautiful bill.

The next morning we called house members and told them to pass the senate’s bill. But in the middle of the following night, they ripped apart the senate’s bill and passed their own.

We were devastated but then after a couple of hours we realized there were five days left in the legislative session. So we decided to fight to the end. We lit up the phones of the house and the governor. They cried for mercy and negotiated.

In democracy, I realized compromise is necessary. Our compromise was the trigger clause. But most importantly, the final bill had integrity and is a strong GMO labeling law.

What would you recommend to other state organizers who are trying to pass labeling bills in their states?

Cook-Littman: Develop a strong leadership team; this isn’t a one person job. We had 25 people who were leaders.

With that team, build strong relationships with legislators. Once you get to know them they will see that we have truth on our side, and there is no denying truth.

Building partnerships takes time. Start now to develop those relationships.

People shouldn’t be intimidated by legislators. They are people, and we elected them. Ask for in-person meetings with them.

Any states that go forward should use the language from the Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont bills. Use laws that are being passed so that we stay uniform going forward.

Activate the masses. Educational events work magic.

Now that Connecticut has passed a GMO labeling bill, what’s next for you and GMO-Free Connecticut?

Cook-Littman: We are going to help other states and share what works with them.

We will continue having educational events in Connecticut to help build a more sustainable food supply and support our local farmers.

We have an amazing activist network. I could see us working on some other issue in the future.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, July/August 2013