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Monsanto and Malloy: Big Foods Wins a Compromise on GMOs

If you were to come up with a lobbying Dream Team to defend genetically modified organisms (GMOs) against hordes of foodie reformers, it would probably look a lot like the one that's been operating for months at our state Capitol.

And apparently operating rather successfully, according to the folks who want Connecticut consumers to be told whether the foods they are buying contain GMOs.

A landmark GMO labeling bill that popped out of the state Senate got “compromised” into a condition of virtual impotence when it hit the House last week. Some lawmakers who reluctantly went along with the “compromise” insist it was better than nothing. Anti-GMO forces argue the emasculated measure that limped out from the House would be worse than no bill at all.

The state Senate over the weekend approved a revised version of the compromise bill and returned it to the House for final action, which passed it on a 134-3 vote Monday. In our legislature, anything that passes that easily is almost certainly not going to upset the status quo very much.

Activists appeared ready to settle for the recompromised compromise, even though it had no final deadline for requiring GMO foods to be labeled in Connecticut.

Tara Cook Littman, founder of GMO Free CT, called the Senate's latest version “substantially better” than what came out of the House and insisted she and other foodies are confident Connecticut's plan “can serve as a catalyst” to spur similar action in other states.

Critics say the primary castration on the labeling bill was performed by two liberal Democrats, Gov. Dannel Malloy and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey. Both defended the surgery as prudent and necessary, but their knife work certainly left that lobbying Dream Team smiling.

The anchor for Connecticut's GMO defensive squad is Monsanto (world's biggest purveyor of genetically modified seed crops) and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which represents many of the nation's biotech behemoths.

The next heavyweight in the lineup is Connecticut United for Research Excellence, which calls itself “The Bioscience Network of Connecticut.” CURE's board of directors happens to include University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst and Claire Leonardi, head of Connecticut Innovations, a quasi-state venture capital fund. Oh yes, the board also has reps from Yale University and pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, Purdue Pharma, and Shire.

(Keep in mind that Malloy has become a huge promoter of this state's bio-tech industry, spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to lure top research outfits to Connecticut.)

Rounding out the GMO defense is the Connecticut Food Association, carrying the flag for giant supermarket chains, the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

One of the GMO-labeling bill's chief sponsors in the legislature is state Rep. Phil Miller of Essex. He says Monsanto and other industry and institutional players have “hired an army of lobbyists to discredit our efforts.”

One of the veteran lobbyists working to block the labeling legislation is David McQuade. His firm alone is being paid $50,000 a year by the BIO. He says the starting point for all supporters of genetically modified foods is there's no reason to label stuff because GMO foods are no different than any “natural” foods. That's also the federal government's point of view.

The feds (and Monsanto) insist telling consumers which foods contained GMOs would only confuse the poor souls. Monsanto has patented the seeds it's created, which are resistant to the herbicide and pesticides that Monsanto sells to farmers. The company claims its seeds will boost food production and reduce pesticide pollution — claims that are coming under increasing outside scrutiny.

Monsanto operates in Connecticut through DeKalb Genetics Corp. in Mystic. DeKalb was purchased by Monsanto in 1998 for $2.3 billion, and it was through that company that Monsanto got into the genetically modified corn business.

The agri-business giant has other Connecticut connections as well.

In 1999, Monsanto, DeKalb, Bio-Investigations Ltd. and the University of Connecticut signed agreements to develop and market corn to prevent virus infections in poultry. The “chicken interferon technology” was developed by UConn researchers. (Herbst was “unavailable to comment” about the whole GMO controversy, according to a UConn spokeswoman.)

In 2007, Monsanto decided to expand its financial support of a joint Yale University-Peking University research project to improve crop production. The company's tab for that came to more than $1 million.

A great many nations around the world — those that haven't already banned them — already require labeling of things containing genetically modified organisms. The European Union requires GMO labeling, for example.

GMO critics say there are far too many questions about the potential environmental and human impact of genetically modified crops and food, and far too little long-term research that's been done. They also wonder why, if GMOs are no problem, what the big deal is about telling people that the stuff is in their food.

The legislation that originally came out of Connecticut's Senate would have required labeling of GMO foods in Connecticut if at least three other states did the same thing. Even if no other states followed our lead, Connecticut GMO labeling would have taken effect by January 2016.

That wasn't good enough for Malloy and Sharkey.

“I'm concerned about our state going out on its own on this and the potential economic disadvantage that could cause,” Sharkey warned, taking his cues from the food manufacturers and supermarket operators. They claimed there could be all kinds of production and shipping problems if Connecticut were the only state around requiring this GMO labeling.

McQuade says there were discussions about these dangers with Malloy's staff and Sharkey. He says there was also a “collective meeting” that included all the grocery and supermarket and food producer honchos together with the governor's people and Sharkey's staffers.

What emerged from closed-door meetings last week was a series of conditions that had to be met in order for GMO foods to get labeled in Connecticut.

At least five states with a total population of 25 million or more (that's way more than all of New England) would have to pass GMO labeling laws. Those states would have to include New York, New Jersey and at least two states on Connecticut's borders. The revised version approved by the Senate on Saturday scaled back the requirements to four states, one of which had to be a Connecticut border state, and a 20 million population threshold. But there is no final deadline in the revised legislation.

Malloy said he was worried about Connecticut going it alone and the resulting higher food costs being passed along to consumers. “In some cases,” the governor told the Hartford Courant, “you'd have a number of products that would become unavailable in Connecticut because the mass producers would refuse to relabel for one state alone.”

Interesting idea, that Big Food would give up millions of dollars in sales here because they couldn't figure out how to stamp a package. Wonder how that problem got solved with, say, bottled water 5-cent refunds in some states?

The “compromised” House version would also exempt from the labeling requirements any GMO foods produced by farmers with less than $1.5 million in gross sales. According to the activist group Food & Water Watch, that exemption would mean “most corn grown in the U.S. may never be labeled” because something like 95 percent of all American farms are too small.

“It would exempt the majority of farmers in the U.S.,” was Cook Littman's frustrated comment on that exemption. “We would rather have no bill at all than a fake bill,” she fumed after the House voted 114-7 on the revised legislation. “They snuck this through in the middle of the night hoping no one would notice… Well, we noticed.”

The $1.5 million in sales threshold was deleted from the bill that won final approval Monday.

Meanwhile, House GMO-labeling supporters like Miller who voted for the Malloy-Sharkey compromise were coming under intense fire from foodie reformers who feared the whole thing had been neutered to the satisfaction of Monsanto & Co.

“I couldn't disagree with them more,” Miller protests. “To go back to having nothing would put us back to square one… I'd rather have a law on the books we could go back and strengthen if necessary.”

Miller points out that 2014 is an election year, a time when lawmakers and governors are notoriously timid about taking up controversial issues like GMOs. He also says Malloy was worried about Connecticut having to stick its neck out if Big Agriculture and Big Food decided to challenge this state's GMO-label law in court.

The trouble is, governors and lawmakers are always timid about taking up controversial issues once they've approved something that has the appearance of action but doesn't really do much at all.

Miller insists those angry anti-GMO reformers just don't understand how the legislature and government works. “Democracy is like baseball,” he says, “you can't really like it if winning is everything.”

Noting that he's been working hard to get some sort of GMO bill through for three years now, Miller was sounding rather hurt about some of the things the foodies were calling him.

“They said some unfortunate things,” he says sadly. “Including calling me a quisling.”

(Historical note: Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian traitor who helped Nazi Germany conquer his nation and then acted as their front man.) 

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