Engineering helps keep Hawaiian taro healthy
WHILE attending a recent potluck, my contribution was a Polish dish with cabbage and potatoes as the main ingredients. My daughter, who has lived in Hawaii more than half her life and has learned to appreciate the local cuisine, chose to feast upon Korean seasoned seaweed and rice, sushi and even some poi. I ate the Polish food, happy that I was able to enjoy one of my favorite traditional dishes, something that is an important part of my heritage.
Thinking about this, and then about the poi, I started thinking about the importance of taro to Hawaiian people. Hawaiian taro (kalo) is a fundamental part of Hawaiian culture and traditional diet. It also is a crop that is being threatened by invasive plant diseases. Up to 50 percent of kalo production might be lost because of diseases each year. The number of named Hawaiian taro varieties has declined dramatically during the past 100 years, from more than 400 in the early 1900s to fewer than 60 today. These losses are largely attributable to the assaults of these invasive pests (like pocket rot).
This is an issue that has been raised recently by friends and colleagues of mine -- why does the University of Hawaii do research on taro? I tell them about the invasive pests that are very hard to control, and that some researchers at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources are very interested in helping farmers avoid losses. One way to deal with the pests is by traditional plant breeding to develop resistant varieties. Natural resistance to the pests can be used very effectively this way. The constant onslaught of new pests arriving here is the main problem -- how do we keep up? It's not easy, but people try their best. Growers diligently manage pests as best they can, and researchers try to develop effective controls using various tools, including introduction of disease-resistant genes into taro.
Nevertheless, this requires sensitivity. Kalo is an incredibly important component of Hawaiian culture -- who are we to meddle with it? It is this very concern that resulted in the dean of our college signing an agreement that no genetic engineering research would be done on kalo without prior consultation with Hawaiian groups. Some Hawaiian friends have told me that they would be between a rock and a hard place if all kalo was threatened by a new plant disease. Some would prefer to lose the plants than have them modified by scientists. Given that more diseases are very likely to arrive and further threaten kalo, researchers and Hawaiian leaders are talking with each other as to how best to approach this dilemma.
I hope we can all agree on how to proceed to preserve these important crops. I'd hate to lose the plants that make Polish foods so special. I think they are safer than kalo, though, potatoes and cabbage are not threatened by so many new hard-to-control pests over and over, future generations to come will know them. Will Hawaiian taro be as safe?
Ania Wieczorek runs the agricultural biotechnology education program for the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. For more information on genetic engineering, see www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/gmo/