Lawmakers tackle taro issue

By Sudhin Thanawala
Honolulu, Hawaii (AP) 3-08

State lawmakers considering a 10-year moratorium on genetically engineering taro heard arguments from both sides of the emotionally charged issue.

Supporters of the moratorium say the taro plant, which is used to make the starchy food poi, is a vital part of Hawaiian culture and should be kept pure, not genetically altered.

“(Taro) is in our beliefs and our culture,” Walter Ritte, 63, told the House Agriculture Committee. “It is in us.”

Supporters held signs that read, “No GMO taro” and “Save the taro,” and carried taro plants as they spoke.

Hanohano Naehu, 31, a taro farmer on Molokai, said biotechnology companies were looking to profit from genetically modified taro.

“This is about greed,” he said.

But opponents of the moratorium say Hawaii’s taro is in danger from insects and diseases, and genetic modification could produce taro capable of withstanding these threats.

Previous research has involved introducing disease-resistant genes from other plants into the native taro.

“It would be foolish to throw away any potential tool that could help to sustain taro production on Hawaii,” said Susan Miyasaka, an agronomist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The bill lawmakers are considering would ban taro genetics research at the university and other institutions.

Miyasaka said disease has contributed to a decline in the number of Hawaiian varieties of taro as well as its yield per acre.

Alan Takemoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said lawmakers should reject the moratorium but find a way to protect Hawaiian varieties with cultural significance.

“We are unable to support (the moratorium) because it puts a restraint on research and technology that could benefit our farmers,” he said.

Other opponents say the moratorium would create the perception that Hawaii was against scientific research and technology, which could keep businesses away and hurt the state’s economy.

The House Agriculture Committee heard hours of testimony recently. It is expected to vote on the measure at a later date.