UH expected to abandon controversial taro patents
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer
By Jan TenBruggencate
The University of Hawai'i is expected to announce today that it is dropping its patents on three varieties of taro after Hawaiians and taro farmers protested the very concept of someone owning strains of the plants.
UH Vice Chancellor for Research Gary Ostrander had previously offered to assign its patents to a Hawaiian organization, but opponents said that was insufficient.
"We rejected that because we object to anyone owning kalo, even ourselves," said Moloka'i activist Walter Ritte Jr.
Ostrander yesterday said he will not comment on the university's latest proposal in the dispute until a meeting at the campus this morning. However, those protesting the taro patents said UH has agreed to ask the U.S. Patent Office to undo the patents.
"We appreciate your willingness to respect the wishes of Native Hawaiians in this matter," wrote Ritte and Kaua'i taro farmer Christine Kobayashi in a letter to Ostrander. "In the future, we request that UH consult with the Native Hawaiian community before claiming or obtaining intellectual property rights over living organisms of these Islands."
The taro varieties in question were developed through traditional breeding techniques as part of an effort to develop taro resistant to fungus attacks that have severely affected South Pacific crops.
UH officials had argued the university patents would protect the taro industry since there is nothing to stop large agricultural companies from modifying the plants and getting their own patents.
Patents also are included in faculty union contracts to compensate the inventor or breeder with a portion of the patent fees.
"Taro farmers applaud the university's decision to abandon the taro patents. UH did not invent taro, and they had no right to own it or license it to farmers," Kobayashi said.
Anti-patenting groups have removed a stone altar they erected on the lawn fronting the UH administration building. The altar, or ahu, featuring a carved image of the Hawaiian cultural figure Haloa, was built on the grounds of the Center for Hawaiian Studies. It is said that Haloa, the elder brother of the first Polynesians, sacrificed himself to become the taro, or kalo, plant.
"We are pleased that the university has finally seen the light and agreed to abandon the patents on kalo, our elder brother," Ritte said.
He said the agreement to collapse the patents was reached at a June 12 meeting with Ostrander.
Paul Koehler, president of the Hawai'i Crop Improvement Association, said he agrees with UH's decision to drop the taro patents, given the plant's cultural importance. But he also said plant breeding is expensive and time-consuming, and that patents can protect industry investment in research and breeding.
"We caution that it could set a dangerous precedent for the free market enterprise. This is because it puts at risk the seven to 10 years that are needed to develop a new plant variety, confirm its health and safety (in the case of genetically engineered plants) and bring it to market, and the tens of millions of dollars needed to fund it," Koehler said. "Without the same patent protection that is afforded other technologies, private industry would have no incentive to move forward."
Although companies commonly seek patents on genetically modified crops, traditionally bred varieties are seldom patented, said Paul Moore, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
Koehler said UH is the only organization conducting taro research in Hawai'i.
Sarah Sullivan of Hawai'i SEED, a sustainable agriculture coalition, said the university and other organizations involved in plant breeding should involve the community before engaging in genetic modification or patenting of organisms in the Islands.
Reach Jan TenBruggencate at email@example.com.