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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 17, 2006

UH seeks solution to taro patenting

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The University of Hawai'i, criticized for obtaining patents on new varieties of taro, will research ways to gain an exemption to its policy of automatically patenting new strains of the plant.

Native Hawaiians and taro growers recently erected a stone cairn on the UH-Manoa lawn, with a carving that memorializes the connection between taro and Hawaiian culture. Protesters argued that it is inappropriate to patent a crop that has such a significant place in native culture.

UH's vice chancellor for research and graduate education, Gary Ostrander, said the university "has come to both recognize and appreciate the unique place that taro occupies in the lives and culture of indigenous peoples and in particular our Native Hawaiian community."

Ostrander said that while the institution has not determined how it will do so, "we can unequivocally state the intention of Manoa to make an exception to the process relating to patenting and licensing surrounding taro."

Taro patent protester Walter Ritte, of Moloka'i, said taro growers and Hawaiians still plan to attend the UH Board of Regents meeting tomorrow to express their dismay with the school's policies. If the university is serious about finding a way to resolve the issue, "maybe we can help them figure it out," Ritte said.

The taro varieties in question are not genetically modified. They were created through traditional breeding techniques. The three patented varieties have been bred to be resistant to a fungal leaf blight. Under UH union contracts, such developments must be protected through patent applications. Ostrander said one concern has been that if the university doesn't obtain a patent, a commercial entity could readily obtain one and control the release of the hybrid.

"Manoa now must find a way to simultaneously be responsive to our faculty, their union, potential predatory commercial patents, and of no less importance, our greater Native Hawaiian community," he said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.