Many questioning why UH should own hybrids
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer
By Jan TenBruggencate
The University of Hawai'i's acquisition in 2002 of patents on three taro hybrids has launched a series of protests by farmers, Hawaiians and others concerned about the cultural, environmental and economic impacts of taro research.
University officials agree it's a difficult issue and want to launch discussions to determine how to proceed.
"The conversation needs to occur right now," said Gary Ostrander, UH-Manoa vice chancellor for research. "Given how important taro is, I think it's a moment at which everyone involved should sit down and come to a solution."
Demonstrators upped the ante with a rally Saturday on the UH campus at which they erected a stone ahu, or altar, with a carved figure of a man holding a taro plant aloft. The figures represent Haloa, in Hawaiian tradition the elder brother of the first human, from whose body grew the first taro, or kalo.
Moloka'i activist Walter Ritte said the taro issue is a sensitive one.
"They're going to first manipulate it, then patent it and then own it. They're telling us Hawaiians what's going to happen to our own biodiversity," Ritte said.
Kaua'i taro farmer Chris Kobayashi said growers for years have participated in UH taro-breeding experiments, and there never was a question of someone owning the resulting hybrids.
"We pay taxes for the university, we help them grow it and now suddenly they own it. We have to pay a licensing fee if we use it," at a time when farmers' costs are rising fast, she said.
UH officials said the patents may actually protect the taro industry. Patents are included in faculty union contracts, which provide that the inventor or breeder gets half the patent fees after the university's patenting costs are covered.
"If we don't patent it, Monsanto or someone else could slightly modify it and patent it. The thing, from our perspective, is how do you protect the intellectual property," said Andy Hashimoto, dean of the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
He said the rules are not unreasonable. If farmers want to buy a patented cultivar from the university, it costs $2 per huli — the planting stock — which covers the university's cost of production. Thereafter, farmers can grow it for three years and then must pay 2 percent of their profits from its use to UH. Any taro that is for home use or is obtained by trading with other farmers has no cost.
Some of the roughly 200 people who attended Saturday's demonstration on the lawn near Bachman Hall said they also are concerned about the university's activities in the genetic manipulation of taro.
"I think that genetic manipulation poses threats environmentally. I don't think enough testing has been done at all to determine if it's safe," said Sarah Sullivan of Hawai'i Seed, a statewide coalition of groups opposing genetic modification of crops.
Kobayashi said researchers are inserting into taro the genes from corn, wheat, rice and other crops. "You don't know what's in it anymore. It's not taro anymore," she said.
Hashimoto said UH has a moratorium on any genetic manipulation of Hawaiian taro varieties, although work is being performed with Chinese taro, bun long, which is not used for poi.
Reach Jan TenBruggencate at firstname.lastname@example.org.