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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 2, 2006

Bills limit taro, coffee testing

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

State lawmakers yesterday pushed forward proposals that would limit to laboratories research and growth of genetically modified taro and coffee until mid-2011.

The two bills Senate Bill 2749 and SB 2750 would prohibit open-field testing and growing of genetically modified taro and coffee, and ban all work on genetically modified Hawaiian varieties of taro. The measures allow existing work on non-Hawaiian varieties of taro to continue in environmentally secure labs.

The bills, which were passed unanimously by the Committee on Water, Land and Agriculture and Energy, Environment, and the International Affairs Committee, originally called for a 10-year moratorium on research and growth of GMO taro and coffee.

Yesterday's votes on the bills followed six hours of public testimony on GMO taro and coffee Saturday. The current versions of the bills are meant as a compromise between industry's desire to conduct GMO research and farmers' concerns about cross-contamination, said Kalani English, D-6th (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i), chairman of the Energy, Environment and International Affairs Committee.

"I think we've actually struck some common ground in this particular area," he said. "The taro growers will have been given assurances that they'll have ... pure product."

Concern about taro stems from research by the University of Hawai'i into genetically modified taro or kalo, in the Hawaiian language. So far that work has been conducted in a laboratory setting. The research initially involved work on the Maui Lehua variety of taro, which touched a nerve among some as being disrespectful to Native Hawaiian culture.

UH's work now is limited to the Chinese Bun Long taro. That project involves inserting genes from grapevine and wheat into Chinese taro to improve fungal disease resistance.

UH said it has no plans to to proceed with genetic research on Hawaiian taro. However, C.Y. Hu, associate dean at the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said field tests should be allowed on other varieties of genetically modified taro.

"I think existing regulations really are sufficient to do that (prevent cross-contamination of GMO and normal taro)," he said. "We don't want a tool removed from our toolbox.

"Without field tests, you can't make any conclusions" about how well a particular plant performs in nature.

Walter Ritte, a member of Hawaiian environmental group Hui Hoopakele Aina, said yesterday's action by the Legislature was a good step forward. Farmers support the use of traditional techniques to grow a hardier, more productive taro, he said.

"The problem is when they (UH) crossed the line by introducing genetic modifications," Ritte said.

The bills now face a vote before the full Senate.

A group of farmers, Native Hawaiians and activists plans to meet with UH interim President David McClain today to demand the school's patents of three varieties of taro be dropped.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.