Connecticut foodie activists say they were disappointed but not surprised that a California ballot proposition to require that foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) be labeled went down to defeat last week.
And they insist that defeat won't stop them from pushing ahead with plans to ask lawmakers in this state to pass similar GMO labeling legislation in 2013. "I think we'll get it passed," says Tara Cook-Littman, head of Right To Know Connecticut. "I really do."
The reason the defeat of California's GMO proposal (on a 53-47 percent vote) wasn't much of a shock was the ferocity of the opposition campaign in that state. Big business, led by GMO giant Monsanto, waged a $49 million effort to convince California voters to kill the labeling plan.
Monsanto is the world's leading producer of genetically modified seeds and has been a relentless foe of any labeling proposals. The company contributed an estimated $8.1 million to the effort to defeat California's GMO-labeling Proposition 37.
Officials both at Monsanto and within the federal government argue that indicating on labels whether a food has been genetically modified would only "confuse" consumers. (Most consumers, according to various polls, are in favor of GMO labeling, but that apparently isn't a factor for the feds.)
Monsanto and Food and Drug Administration experts say there is no chemical difference between genetically engineered foods and those grown naturally — a claim disputed by many environmental researchers and some scientists. Critics argue the long-term effects of GMO crops and food on the environment and on people is largely unknown, and they worry about the potential for serious damage to both.
"This issue is so slippery and the opposition is so willing to stretch the truth… and is so wealthy, that it's not surprising we lost," says Bill Duesing, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
Duesing and Cook-Littman were among the speakers at a legislative GMO task force meeting last week.
"The currently dominant industrial food system is dependent on our ignorance," Duesing told the task force, "not just about GMOs, but about health effects, labor practices, environmental costs and more."
Duesing urged Connecticut legislators to pay attention to who was financing the opposition to California's Proposition 37. "They are the ones who currently control the food system," he said.
Polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans favor GMO labeling, Duesing pointed out.
"In a commonsense world, you would pass a GMO labeling bill out of committee and through the [state] House and Senate for a willing governor to sign," he added. "We are not in a commonsense world because of the pervasive damage that money and power cause to public discourse and our society."
Duesing says Connecticut's anti-GMO activists are hoping to study what happened in California and develop ways to counter the heaving opposition from Monsanto and the food industry.
"We hope to learn from that experience to make our case here," he explains. One of the complaints from critics in California was that the Proposition 37 plan was too loosely worded and too vague. "We want to get a much tighter bill here that hopefully we can pass," Duesing says.
Connecticut food activists originally hoped that a victory in California might lend momentum to their push for GMO labeling here. But Cook-Littman doesn't think the failure out West will act as a drag on Connecticut's labeling campaign.
"We actually win every time someone learns about GMO foods and decides not to buy them anymore," she says. "We had 4,277,985 people [in California] vote in favor of Prop 37," Cook-Littman adds, saying that in itself was a kind of victory.
She says the expectation is that Monsanto and other Big Food industries will be going all out to block a Connecticut labeling law in 2013.
"It's a different kind of fight here," Cook-Littman points out, a battle that will be fought in the halls of the General Assembly rather than through the vast TV and radio campaigns that were used in California.
"The public wants this to happen, and our legislators want this to happen," she insists. "This is only the beginning."