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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Taro debate raises question of balance

The conflict over patenting taro varieties developed at the University of Hawai'i may have subsided with a recently forged agreement, but agricultural researchers are right to be concerned that barriers to further development not be erected as a result.

UH has dropped its patents on three varieties of taro, the traditional staple crop of the Islands and a central element in Hawaiian culture. This is better than the earlier proposal to assign patents to a Hawaiian organization, an idea that leaves unresolved the question: Which organization?

In this case, dropping the patents is a reasonable concession, given that taro has significant importance to Hawaiians and that UH has a policy of nurturing and perpetuating the indigenous culture. If there's profit to be made from marketing new, more resilient strains of this plant, perhaps the university is in an awkward position to make it.

Additionally, the university is a state-funded institution where research already receives taxpayer money, so the argument could be made that taro varieties already belong in the public realm, accessible to farmers.

But the fact remains that taro is a food consumed worldwide particularly throughout the Pacific basin and there is little to stop other research centers from seizing the opportunity that UH has yielded.

Besides, there is a limit to how much taxpayer funds can underwrite agricultural research or research in any field so it would be tragic to see such efforts stall because of an inability to provide any financial incentive for doing the work.

A further complication: Patents also are part of the compensation provided in faculty union contracts to reward the inventor or breeder with a portion of the patent fees.

Activists opposing the patents have asked that UH consult with the Native Hawaiian community "before claiming or obtaining intellectual property rights over living organisms of these Islands."

There's nothing wrong with consultation, but the Hawaiian community also must consider: Would this apply only to indigenous species, or also to those with regional habitats or closely related to species elsewhere? And to what extent can research be stopped, in any case, when there are investigators who don't feel bound by Hawaiian cultural considerations?

Going forward with sensitivity to all parties and choosing one's battles carefully would be the wise approach.