By Mark Niesse
March 30, 2007
Upset over the death of a bill that would ban genetic modification of taro, farmers and Native Hawaiians yesterday shouted down chief lawmakers in a noisy protest at the state Capitol.
Protesters wanted lawmakers to hold a hearing on a bill that would place a 10-year moratorium on genetic modification of the taro plant, which is used to make poi and considered an ancestor of the Hawaiian people.
About 50 protesters surrounded the offices of key lawmakers, chanted “Hear the bill!” and waved signs with slogans like “Leave our taro alone” and “Just say no to GMO.”
“Taro is part of our genealogy. We respect it and don’t want to alter the genes of our ancestor,” said Alapaki Luke, a taro farmer from Kahana Valley. “The taro itself represents the environment. We don’t want to alter our environment. We want to sustain it.”
Scientists at the University of Hawai’i fought the bill because they want freedom to genetically modify taro to protect it from diseases that could threaten to wipe out the Islands’ crops.
Three leaders of the House of Representatives eventually answered the yells of the protesters and met with them in the Capitol Rotunda. The protesters demanded answers and pointed fingers, but the lawmakers’ responses didn’t appease them.
The taro protection bill passed through the state Senate, but Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Clifton Tsuji, D-3rd (Hilo, Kea’au, Mountain View), said he plans to defer the bill until next year.
“It’s a complicated and controversial issue, and we need more time,” Tsuji said. “Because of the importance of the issue, we can work on it and come back next year.”
Taro farmers worry that genetically modified breeds could escape the university environment and eventually overrun native varieties, said Trisha Kehaulani Watson, executive director for the Native Hawaiian group Kakoo Oiwi.
“Science can often get ahead of humanity, and when that occurs, it’s difficult to undo the damage,” she said. “We can’t let economic needs outweigh our concern for humanity.”
But researchers say it could be disastrous if their studies were stopped and there was no way to fight diseases like taro leaf blight, which has wiped out entire crops on some Pacific islands, said Kevin Kelly, managing director for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research at the University of Hawai’i.
The genetically modified species of taro are Chinese — not Hawaiian — and they have only been tested in laboratories so far, he said.
“To stop research until there’s a crisis isn’t in anyone’s best interest,” Kelly said. “This is research to make the world a better place.”
Most of the debate involved whether it was more important to protect the cultural significance of the taro plant or to continue research.
Last year, UH relinquished three patents on taro breeds that had been crossbred for disease resistance after months of protests, including a demonstration in which farmers and students chained the entrance of a school building before a meeting of the Board of Regents.
“Leave our taro alone. We never asked them to do this for us,” said Jerry Konanui, a Big Island taro farmer.
House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Wilhelmina Rise), said the goal for lawmakers is to strengthen and expand the taro industry, but neither side can agree on the best way to do that.
The taro moratorium bill will be considered again next year, he said.