Updated at 3:43 p.m., Tuesday, April 3, 2007
GMO taro pits Hawaiians against some scientists
By MARK NIESSE
Hawaiians believe the taro, revered as an ancestor of the Hawaiian people, should not be altered. Taro, tall and broad-leafed, rises from paddy-like patches around the Islands. Its roots are ground into purplish poi, a glutinous substance avoided by some but an essential ingredient at Hawaiian lu'au.
Researchers say the only way to protect traditional taro from widespread modern plant diseases is to insert resistant genes from rice, wheat and grape crops, altering the basic structure of the plant.
State lawmakers have stalled a bill sought by many Hawaiians that would have placed a statewide moratorium on genetic modification of taro for 10 years.
"How bad do things have to get before those who are anti-genetic modification will admit that taro needs help?" asked Susan Miyasaka, a researcher at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo, who has been testing Chinese taro breeds. "The taro farmers are having trouble making ends meet."
About 50 protesters who gathered at a rally at the state Capitol on Friday said they don't want the so-called help that scientists say they can provide.
They question whether genetic modification will be any more effective than traditional crossbreeding techniques, and they worry that genetically modified crops could contaminate the traditional Hawaiian taro breeds.
For some of the demonstrators, the issue is about preserving the purity of the taro rather than the scientific merits of genetic modification.
"What we're really angry about is that the biotech industry has turned this into a genetic modification issue," said Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte. "This is about us protecting our family member."
According to Hawaiian legend, the cosmic first couple gave birth to a stillborn child, Haloa, from whose gnarled body sprang the broad-leafed plant whose roots are made into poi. The Hawaiian people, it is believed, came from a second brother, making the plant part of their common ancestry.
Since ancient Hawaiian times, taro yields have dropped from 48,000 pounds per acre to 11,000 pounds per acre, Miyasaka said. Her research with preliminary tests has shown that her genetically modified Chinese taro is resistant to leaf blight, and she hopes to begin greenhouse trials soon.
The University of Hawai'i has agreed not to do research on Hawaiian types of taro, and it will be careful to prevent their experimental taro from breeding with native varieties, said Stephanie Whalen, president and director of the Hawai'i Agriculture Research Center.
But scientists see no harm in continuing taro research.
"Just because you have research and development doesn't mean you're going to commercialize," Whalen said. "If they don't want it, nothing will happen."
Nationwide, genetic engineering could pose a threat to crops because it could cause allergies and create new toxins in foods, said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy group.
Although no other states have banned genetic modification of any plant, some areas of California have placed regional moratoriums on field tests of genetically modified rice.
"This is a radical new technology that's nothing like traditional breeding," Freese said. "It's a very imprecise technology that can have lots of unintended effects."
The ban on altering taro passed the state Senate before being halted in the House Agriculture Committee, where lawmakers said the issue was too controversial and complicated to pass into law. They will revisit the idea again next year.
"Is there a perfect crop that should not be tampered with? At least for Hawai'i, that crop would be taro," said Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Kahuku, Kane'ohe), a sponsor of the bill. "There are other ways to preserve the crop that do not require genetic modification, including nourishing the land to allow the land to nourish the crop. I would hope that scientists would agree that science isn't a cure-all for everything."
On the Web:
Taro research: www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/gmo/documents/Update-GE-Dec14-06.pdf
Center for Food Safety: www.centerforfoodsafety.org