Activists oppose UH's patenting of taro plants
The university owns the rights to three varieties of the traditional staple
Arguing that the patents were wrongly obtained, local and national activists opposing the patenting of taro plants are asking the University of Hawaii to relinquish the rights it owns for three varieties of the traditional Hawaiian food staple.
Walter Ritte, a Molokai-based activist, plans to join Kauai taro farmer Chris Kobayashi and representatives of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., for a news conference at UH to air their grievances concerning the university's patenting of the three taro varieties, which are called Palehua, Paakala and Pauakea.
Issued in 2002, the patents protect the university's ownership rights of the varieties, which were developed by scientists at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. The patent requires farmers wanting to grow the varieties to pay a licensing fee to the university, prohibits farmers from selling the seeds and requires farmers growing the plants to let UH officials onto the farmers' property to study the plants.
But the critics contend that the university should not exercise intellectual property rights on plants that are derived from species that Polynesians brought to Hawaii more than 1,000 years ago. In traditional Hawaiian culture, the taro plant is viewed as a spiritual ancestor, a crop that sustained the people who cultivated and cared for it. Given this context, Ritte said, any kind of genetic alteration, experimentation or patenting of Hawaiian taro is offensive.
"The taro is not a commodity; the taro is our very person," Ritte said. "It's almost like they're buying and selling us."
But these cultural issues are not the crux of the argument made by Ritte and Kobayashi. Instead, the opponents argue the patents should not have been issued under U.S. patent law.
For example, the opponents assert in a statement that the UH patents should be invalid because the plants are not much different from varieties already invented by Hawaiians. Such previous inventions are called prior art in legal parlance, and the existence of prior art similar to the invention can make it impossible for an inventor to obtain a patent.
Of particular importance to the argument is a variety called Maui Lehua, which was used to cultivate UH's patented hybrid taro plants.
"The qualities of the patented varieties derive to a considerable extent from Maui Lehua, whose properties are the result of many centuries of breeding efforts by native Hawaiians," the opponents contend. "Thus, the patent claims for the three patented varieties are invalidated by considerations of prior art."
The statement also claims that the UH scientists failed to validate properties they claimed the taro contained, another essential element to obtaining a patent.
Finally, the statement takes issue with the several aspects of the licensing agreement, including royalties that farmers selling the taro would have to pay to UH.
"The collection of royalties from farmers whose taxes already support the university's operations, including taro breeding activities, is abhorrent," the statement said. "It represents a superfluous and unjust levy on Hawaiian taro farmers."
Although the patents have existed for years, they came to the attention of the activists only recently, said Bill Freese, a scientific consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety, which opposes the genetic alteration of food crops.
"It's a sign of how these things often take place without public awareness, and I think that once people know that with a plant like the sacred taro plant -- that the University of Hawaii is claiming to own these varieties -- I don't think people will be happy about it," Freese said.
Andy Hashimoto, dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, was not available for comment yesterday. Anya Wieczorek, a biotechnology specialist for CTAHR, said that under university policies, the patents belonged to the scientists and the university's Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development, and that the college would not have the power to relinquish them. Officials of the technology transfer office were not available for comment.
Last year, Wieczorek said, the university said it would not conduct genetic engineering research on Hawaiian taro until it could set up a process for obtaining guidance from a native Hawaiian advisory committee. No university scientist has expressed a desire to conduct such work, she said, so there has been no need to establish the advisory group.