STAR-BULLETIN / 2006
Hawaiians headed toward the University of Hawaii's John A. Burns School of Medicine to chain the front door during a 2006 protest of the university's patents on taro. The university held three patents on disease-resistant strains of Hawaiian taro that the university bred.
The many Meanings of Taro
Moratorium allows time to reflect on the value of Hawaiian taro
STORY SUMMARY »
Is taro a plant with big heart-shaped leaves, a basic foodstuff, a spirit to be venerated, a member of a distinct historical community, a commodity, an object to be genetically engineered?
The controversy about taro arises because these identities and values become competitive. As the five-year moratorium on the genetic modification of Hawaiian taro begins, retired philosophy professor Don Blakeley explores the many meanings of taro and suggests ways we can all use this time to open ourselves to views different from our own.
FULL STORY »
A five-year ban on genetic modification of Hawaiian taro began on July 1. After several years of debate, the legislators mediated between two "cultures," the scientific technicians and the Hawaiian traditionalists -- both of which are very much a part of contemporary Hawaiian life.
Both parties would be offended if they were accused of being anti-environmental. Both want the best interests of the biosphere to be respected. Disagreements occur because different meanings of taro are in conflict. To determine the identity of taro is also to determine its value. Is it a plant with big heart-shaped leaves, a basic foodstuff, a spirit to be venerated, a member of a distinct historical community, a commodity, an object to be genetically engineered?
Notice first a distinction between utility, interdependent and intrinsic values.
» Utility values are important because they serve our interests. Such values focus on function and not the things themselves. These values are transferable and relative. Employees, for example, might be valued for their usefulness, but they are not reducible to this value.
» Interdependent values occur in the complex network of relationships and processes of a being's existence. Everything depends upon and contributes to a setting involving others. A reusable grocery bag, for example, affects plastic bag production, landfills, animal life, environmental quality, future generations and so on.
» Intrinsic value resides in the individualized nature of things. This piece of reef, that turtle, flower or human, when closely observed, reveals intricacy and marvels that make it uniquely what it is. These values are built in and not simply replaceable by other values. The significance of such value may be communicated best by poetic or spiritual language.
Utility and nature
Cultures have defined nature in various ways over time. The West has emphasized a pragmatic (utility) approach. Pre-modern cultures typically find inherent values in the powers of nature. Given the transformation in environmental assessment today, it is now possible to connect these two. A modern ecological perspective can include new values of a "culture" of science and technology which complements deep values that have been part of past Hawaiian practices.
Like lots of things, taro has all three values. It is a foodstuff, it is part of a food production process, integral to the natural and social ecology of Hawaii, and it is uniquely itself because of its own individual nature. From the nano level of its composition to the placement of taro farming in island ecology and its historical role in society, "taro" covers a wide range of meanings.
The controversy about taro arises because these identities and values become competitive. For biotechnology, primary values include a strong, healthy plant, benefiting farmers, making a better commodity, favorable to consumers, a more durable product for society. The emphasis is on utilitarian and limited interdependent values.
For the traditionalist, value radiates from intrinsic to interdependent to utility value. Taro has a deep identity in the history and culture of Hawaii. It is central to creation stories, a sustaining force, an integral part of communal ritual and protocol, supportive of family life and importantly related to the land and water, a reminder of ancestors, contributor to special gatherings and everyday life. If you don't know this, you do not know taro as kalo.
Kalo is not taro as an ag product to generate revenue, not the species colocasia esculenta or a potentially genetically altered product with increased disease resistance. These values are different and can be accommodated only if they presuppose proper respect and usage of taro. To harm taro would disrespect kalo, the spirit of Haloa, and damage the cultural identity and way of life of its community.
Hawaiians have been subjected to alien values imposed across the spectrum of their life's options. Today, the resurgence of the unique values of native Hawaiian culture is observable in many facets of the community, but the costs have been enormous. Genetic engineering involves another perilous encounter.
Can taro retain its value, its spirit, and be subjected to treatment alien to its natural, historical and cultural identity? How can one re-engineer nature without also re-engineering culture? The natural response from its indigenous setting is, "Stop! Please. A moratorium at least." If entitlement secures a rights-claim, does not taro have a right to a flourishing natural life, one with an integrity and beauty of being, free of artificial manipulation?
But the intrinsic and cultural value of taro as kalo is not the whole story. Taro's identity is many and changing. We ourselves, as people, are valued differently in a marketplace, a religious service, a sport, a medical lab and many other places. We are manipulated, objectified, rated and so on while nevertheless maintaining value as unique beings.
Even so, we are being re-engineered by education and technology in both threatening and enhancing ways. There are tradeoffs that persuade us to tolerate actions that, in ordinary circumstances, we would protest. Taro is caught up in this ongoing process like everything else.
Science does reveal the wonders and powers of nature -- including taro -- in a way impossible to realize otherwise. Both scientists and traditional taro farmers have limited knowledge even about the nature of their own expertise. Each can learn from the other. Each provides methods to do what humans and other beings constantly do -- that is, appreciate and utilize. A hard line against or for GMOs is not as persuasive or responsible as it might appear.
Evaluative tradeoffs and mutual respect are due. Biotechnology might be a threat to the value of Hawaiian taro and it might also be the means to preserve it in future circumstances. Adequate evidence of safety and effectiveness should be established. Until that occurs, possible adverse threats cannot outweigh the current practices of Hawaiian taro production.
A holistic ecology approach that sees an interdependence of culture and nature can help in thinking about taro. It calls us to recognize deep values that cannot be reduced or converted to other values. It challenges us to prioritize and strive to accommodate and complement nature and the place of culture within it.
True, utility values dominate scientific-industrial-economic practices. But this need not be the case for a community. To protect beings and things of value, genetic engineering can be "humanized" by finding its place in the ranking of values. With precautionary measures and when properly employed, it can be an appropriate homage, a way to honor and enhance the meaning of taro.
Taro's identity is part of the islands' identity. Its story is part of Hawaii's story. Island children can be educated by thinking through such issues. With care, deep values can be preserved, expanded, diversified, and be complementary to nature and contemporary island life.
We all are faced with the challenge of preserving and enhancing our world by integrating and sustaining values that naturalize culture and culturalize nature in the best ways we can manage. Wise use of past practices and values should be supported because a culture is distinguished by its interrelational and intrinsic values. It shows that it cares about itself by cultivating and enriching its values and skills.
The moratorium is a time to continue to reflect, to articulate perspectives, investigate options, in an effort to preserve deep traditional connections and enhance, with appropriate use of technology, future life practices. Call it eco-aloha, a time to exercise the spirit of aloha as an environmental philosophy.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The author of this article was mistaken. Senate Bill 958, which would have imposed a 5-year moratorium on the genetic modification of Hawaiian taro, did not pass and was sent back to the Committee on Agriculture. Bills banning the genetic testing of taro have been introduced during the last two legislative sessions and the debate seems likely to continue.