How Facebook saved GMO legislation

In the early morning hours of Friday, May 24, state representatives voted on an amended version of a bill that would require labeling of food that had been genetically engineered.

But, according to Tara Cook-Littman of Fairfield, director of the grass-roots advocacy group GMO Free CT, most of the representatives did not know what was in the amendment.

She said Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey of Hamden (D-88th) had rendered a bill she and her allies once viewed useful “ineffective,” by including triggers and exemptions.

“In the chamber, [the representatives] were all getting pressure,” Cook-Littman said. “They were all being told, ‘Your constituents aren’t going to be happy if you don’t approve the GMO labeling bill.’ ”

The house approved what labeling advocates called a “non-bill.”

Amanda Wendt of Trumbull, social media director for GMO Free CT, said that that house vote was a disappointment for the group, which had been working to require GMO labeling for the state for 18 months.

“We were all very upset,” she said.

Once GMO Free CT had a few days to gather themselves, and their supporters, they stormed the state capital — virtually.

“I think [the legislators] thought we weren’t paying attention,” Wendt said of the House passing the “non-bill” in the middle of the night just before Memorial Day weekend. “I think collectively they thought, ‘Yay, we passed a GMO labeling bill. Now, the calls will stop.’”

They were wrong.

GMO Free CTp posted on Facebook asking, “What about transparency,” targeting Malloy and Sharkey.

“That’s what really kicked off calls to Malloy and Sharkey,” Wendt said.

The group had about 3,500 likes on Facebook at that time.

According to Sharkey, after GMO Free CT began rallying supporters on Facebook, he and Malloy collectively received more than 40,000 phone calls. Sharkey alone received more than 5,000 emails and more than 1,000 comments were posted on their Facebook pages.

People were angry and pointedly telling the two leaders to give the state a “real bill.”

“I think for the most part, people were respectful,” Wendt said.

“It was so empowering for people not normally part of a political process to pick up a phone to their representatives, send an email or post on Facebook,” Wendt said. “[It made them feel] they are part of the political process.

And it worked.

“If we hold legislators responsible, we can make change,” Cook-Littman said.

People had told the advocates to give up and accept the bill; they said no.

“And, thankfully, the Senate said, no, [too],” Cook-Littman said.

The bill that passed

Cook-Littman had been hoping that the “non-bill” that the House passed and was sent to the Senate would be rejected by the Senate at the least. At the best, she wanted the Senate to rewrite it and send it back to the House, which is what happened.

After a lot of back and forth and give and take among legislators, both chambers ultimately approved a new version of the GMO labeling bill — the Senate on June 1 and the house on June 3 — which eliminated an exemption for farmers making less than $1.5 million a year that the House had included.

“It was a huge victory,” Wendt said. “That [exemption] really compromised the bill.”

The amended bill also changed the triggers that will determine when the bill takes effect. In its current state, in order for the labeling bill to take effect four other states will first need to have labeling, one that is neighboring Connecticut. And there will need to be a collective population of 20 million in the Northeast (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania or New Jersey) that have labeling laws.

“The language [now] is very good,” Wendt said.

One thing that is bothering the folks at GMO Free CT is the negative response people are having to the trigger clause.

Cook-Littman says people should relax about it.

“Nobody has anything to worry about with the trigger,” Cook-Littman said.

Advocates did not want the trigger, but said Malloy would not sign the bill without it.

“The governor has made it clear he will not sign the bill without it,” Cook-Littman said. “What can we do?”

They had to pick their battles.

“We feel confident that this will give other states momentum,” Wendt said.

A coalition of 37 states is working toward labeling legislation, several in the Northeast.

Connecticut has led the way and made history by being the first state to pass a labeling bill for genetically engineered food.

“No other state has gotten this far,” Cook-Littman said.

When GMO Free CT began they were just a bunch of “crazy moms and environmentalists” out to educate other families about genetically engineered food.

Their mission switched to advocating for a labeling law a year and a half ago. And through the months, as their momentum — and Facebook followers — grew, they became a political movement that ultimately only three legislators in Connecticut voted against.

Mike Alberts, Rob Sampson and John Piscopo were the only representatives in the state who did not approve the final bill, according to Cook-Littman.

Malloy, who has said he will sign the bill, said that he was looking out for small businesses during his negotiations.

“This bill strikes an important balance by ensuring the consumers’ right to know what is in their food while shielding our small businesses from liability that could leave them at a competitive disadvantage,” Malloy said. “I look forward to working with advocates and stakeholders on this important issue, and thank legislative leaders for their work in crafting this legislation.”

On June 7, Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal visited Hartford and joined with labeling advocates at a press conference.

Blumenthal is a co-sponsor of the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, bipartisan federal legislation that would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to clearly label genetically engineered foods so that consumers can make informed choices about what they eat.

“I applaud the Connecticut legislature for its groundbreaking bipartisan vote to ensure that families here have the information they need to make informed choices about the food they eat,” Blumenthal said. “All consumers nationwide deserve to have clear, consistent, and accurate facts about the food they purchase.”

Sixty-four countries around the world already require the labeling of genetically engineered foods, including all the member nations of the European Union, Russia, Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand.

“Most other countries have rejected GMOs and 64 label,” Cook-Littman said. “The U.S. is tied into GMOs because Monsanto and most of the biotech industry is from the U.S.”

Cook-Littman is grateful the rest of the world rejects GMOs and said America’s acceptance reflects badly on the country.

“I think we’re the laughingstock of the world because of it,” she said. “But the American people are fighting back now.”

The Connecticut advocacy group intends to work with other states to keep the momentum going. Leaders hope that this achievement will mean that the next group that tries to make change will be heard quicker.

“The thing that we hope can be the legacy of all this is that people realize they can rise up, use their voice and remind our lawmakers that they work for us and not the corporations that want to keep us in the dark,” Cook-Littman said.

GMO Free CT has more than 4,800 likes on Facebook and is growing every day.