Activists renew taro ban effort
Farmers and Hawaiian activists who have unsuccessfully pushed for a state ban on genetically modified taro -- a plant they liken to an ancestor -- called yesterday on key lawmakers to give the proposal "a fair hearing" during the legislative session that opens today.
"This is a cultural issue," said Walter Ritte of Molokai. "Our eldest brother, Haloa (taro), has been attacked genetically. We want to prevent any more genetic attacks on our family."
Ritte, speaking next to potted taro on the grounds of Iolani Palace, where the Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown, joined about two dozen people to announce a three-day lobbying effort to get Senate Bill 958 passed. They have scheduled rallies at the state Capitol today and tomorrow.
Last year, lawmakers put off a hearing on the measure, which would impose a 10-year moratorium on testing, cultivating and growing genetically engineered taro. The issue has pitted Hawaiians against scientists who have argued taro needs to be genetically enhanced to fight diseases.
Demonstrators targeted yesterday House Speaker Calvin Say and Rep. Clifton Tsuji, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, for failing to consider the bill last year.
Phone messages seeking comment from Say and Tsuji were not immediately returned yesterday.
Tsuji (D, Hilo-Glenwood) told the Associated Press he won't decide whether to support a five- or 10-year moratorium until he reviews a pending Department of Agriculture report on the suggested ban.
"It's a very contentious issue. On one side, we talk about research to review the viability of taro. On the other side, you have the cultural significance," he said.
The state Agriculture Department is seeking more input from taro farmers before finalizing its report, a spokeswoman said.
The University of Hawaii plans to oppose the bill because it would violate academic freedom, said Kevin Kelly, the school system's managing director of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research-Hawaii.
"We are concerned with the Legislature being able to legislate what you can and cannot study," he said.
Kelly said the university has no plans to conduct more genetic research of taro. In June, following months of protests from Hawaiians, the school turned over patents on three varieties of disease-resistant taro it had developed to help Samoan growers whose crops were hard hit by a leaf blight in the 1990s.
In a symbolic move, activists tore up copies of the patents to show taro cannot be owned.
Chris Kobayashi, whose family has grown taro on Kauai for 60 years, said farmers can rotate crops to stop the spread of pests. Kobayashi, who cultivates taro on 10 acres, fears genetic research of taro could threaten varieties of the plant.
"We have become so commercial that we have forgotten how to grow things with nature," she said.