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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Taro research should be allowed to continue

A public forum set for today at a University of Hawai'i taro patch marks an important move forward in the dialogue over genetic research and its impact, particularly, on important local plant stocks.

The forum is designed to air views on university research into genetically modified taro, or kalo in Hawaiian.

As with other important crops, such as papaya, sugar and coffee, UH is on the lookout for ways to "design" a hardier, more productive plant.

There are fears about any genetic engineering, including the concern that disease resistance built into a valuable crop could "migrate" into similar but undesirable plants.

But with taro, there is an additional concern: Taro, used to make poi, is a central element of traditional Hawaiian culture and life. Some feel any effort to scientifically alter this most important food crop would be disrespectful to the Hawaiian culture.

That view should be respected. But it should not be allowed to stop or control scientific efforts to come up with a hardier or better-producing taro plant.

Those who wish to grow taro in the old way should be allowed to do so. But others, struggling to meet a growing market demand for this nutritious and important plant, should be allowed to pursue ways that would make their work slightly easier.

And this is not simply an issue for Hawai'i. Taro is an important food crop throughout the Pacific and, indeed, in much of Asia. What emerges from research here could be a boon for growers throughout the region.

Hawai'i pioneered high-end research in tropical crops ranging from sugar cane to pineapple, building on our promising future in biosciences. There is no reason taro should not be added to these accomplishments.