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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, February 14, 2005

Taro genetic work blasted

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Some Native Hawaiians are expressing concern that genetic engineering of taro could pose a cultural and economic threat to the Hawaiian people.

"Taro is a sacred plant to us. It's absolutely sacred," said Big Island educator Ku Kahakalau. She said taro — kalo, in the native language — is a body form of the Hawaiian god Kane.

Moloka'i activist Walter Ritte Jr. said tradition has taro as an ancestor of the Hawaiian people.

Until recently, most genetic work with taro has involved traditional breeding: crossing one variety with another to develop new varieties with qualities of the parent plants. Such work, for example, might try to combine the disease resistance of one variety with the flavor and large-sized corms of another.

Kahakalau and Ritte said that using genetic-engineering techniques to insert foreign genes into the taro plant is wrong. "You can't change our ancestors without our permission," Ritte said.

They also expressed concern that genetically engineered taro would be patented and that farmers might have to pay a license fee to grow it. "They're trying to own what shouldn't be owned," Ritte said.

University of Hawai'i plant pathologist John Cho, who conducts taro research, said he generally agrees that genetic engineering is neither necessary nor appropriate for taro grown for food. But he said there are instances in which new varieties have been patented, even when grown using traditional techniques.

Cho said he is participating in a trial with the Hawai'i Agricultural Research Center to insert disease-resistance genes from rice into a Chinese taro variety called bun long to develop a hardy ornamental taro.

"I've told people I don't think it's appropriate for food taro. You can improve disease resistance and do the other things we need to do with taro using traditional breeding methods," Cho said.

Stephanie Whalen, director of the Hawai'i Agricultural Research Center, said the research at this point is simply aimed at determining how to do the genetic modification on taro if in the future someone wants it.

"We've been working with the University of Hawai'i on trying to develop a system for working with taro, but we're not working on any traditional Hawaiian varieties. And if people don't want it, it won't go anywhere," Whalen said.

Kahakalau said she has no objection to traditional breeding. "We know that our Hawaiian ancestors hybridized kalo. There is no need to genetically engineer it," she said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.