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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Genetic taro talks resume at Capitol

 •  Growing taro and learning

By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer


A hearing on Senate Bill 958 will be held at 9 a.m. today in the House conference room of the state Capitol Auditorium.

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State lawmakers today are resuming discussion of a highly divisive measure to prohibit the University of Hawai'i and others from performing genetic research on taro, a year after the proposal was shelved by a key legislative committee.

The House Committee on Agriculture has scheduled a hearing for 9 a.m. on Senate Bill 958, which would impose a 10-year moratorium on developing or growing genetically engineered taro in Hawai'i.

Supporters of a moratorium are largely Native Hawaiian taro farmers who say genetic engineering of taro, or kalo in Hawaiian, is unnecessary and an affront to Hawaiian culture in which the plant is considered sacred.

"When it comes to taro, trust the taro farmer," said Jim Cain, a taro farmer and poi maker from Waipi'o Valley on the Big Island who presented a petition of 100 farmers representing 40 Waipi'o farms supporting the moratorium.

"We're not anti-science," Cain added. "This is about respecting our culture."

But bill opponents led by UH's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources say the ban would set back research to protect an important crop from existing and potential threats such as insects and diseases that have reduced taro production and could devastate the industry.

The issue has been debated publicly and sometimes fiercely over the past three years after Native Hawaiian concerns were raised over genetic research projects by UH scientists in the laboratory.

The research prior to mid-2005 involved introducing disease-resistant genes from rice into three taro varieties, including one Hawaiian variety, Maui Lehua. Later research was limited to incorporating genes from grapevine and wheat into the Chinese Bun Long taro variety to increase fungal disease resistance.

Two years ago, the Legislature considered, but did not pass, bills that would have limited genetic research and growing of non-Hawaiian varieties of taro to the lab for five years.

Last year, the 10-year moratorium on any genetic testing or growing of taro was proposed through SB958, but after clearing the Senate, the bill was denied a hearing in the House Committee on Agriculture.


The refusal to hear the bill in the committee chaired by Rep. Clifton Tsuji, D-3rd (S. Hilo, Puna, Kea'au), rallied moratorium supporters in a vocal protest at the Capitol a year ago.

Since then, some members of the House and state Department of Agriculture officials have visited taro farms to discuss and better understand the issue. A stakeholder meeting also was held in October.

Today, the committee led by Tsuji plans to hear testimony on the bill, though passionate positions for and against the measure haven't changed.

Yesterday, moratorium opponents held a press briefing at the Capitol that drew a roughly equal number of moratorium supporters who voiced their views.

UH has a long history of working with taro farmers on efforts to improve declining taro production and protect Hawaiian taro varieties, which have declined from more than 400 in the early 1900s to about 60 today.

Andrew Hashimoto, dean and director of the College of Tropical Agriculture, said UH has agreed not to genetically modify Hawaiian taro varieties or field test non-Hawaiian varieties. "This moratorium doesn't make sense at all," he said.

Some taro farm operators like Alfred Balauro, who manages a friend's taro patch on Kaua'i, support genetic research that possibly could help prevent an industry disaster. "It is very important to have tools ready," Balauro said.

But many taro farmers regard genetically engineered taro as an inappropriate alternative to more traditional disease prevention practice. They argue that genetic modifications could contaminate traditional plant strains.

Glenn Teves, a farm specialist on Moloka'i who works for the College of Tropical Agriculture, wants to see healthier conventional farming practices and invasive species prevention instead of genetically modified organisms. "GMO is not the way to go," he said.

Alan Takemoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, said his trade association hasn't surveyed local taro farmers to measure how the industry is aligned on the issue. The association itself supports a safe coexistence of traditional, organic and genetically modified farming, and has come out against the moratorium partly on grounds that it might set a precedent against genetic crop research.

Because genetic crop research and production is a controversial issue globally, the taro moratorium bill has attracted passionate involvement from polarized groups not directly involved with taro.


David Henkin, an attorney with environmental watchdog organization Earthjustice in Honolulu, raised concerns about genetic contamination of taro and the broader fear of harmful effects of genetic research on other crops.

Lisa Gibson, president of the Hawaii Science & Technology Council that represents some businesses involved in genetic crop research, said arguments against such research are based on unsubstantiated fear, and that safe practices reasonably guard against contamination.

If SB958 is to be passed this year, it would have to be first approved by the House Agriculture Committee and two other House committees: the Committee on Energy & Environmental Protection and the Committee on Consumer Protection & Commerce. If the bill is amended, members of the Senate would have to approve changes.

Reach Andrew Gomes at agomes@honoluluadvertiser.com.