Modified taro varieties ignite farmers' fears


POSTED: Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Native Hawaiian Lyn Scott said she fears genetically modified taro could contaminate the Hawaiian taro grown by her family for generations in East Maui.

“;I prefer we stick to the indigenous taro,”; said Scott, whose family grows taro in Honopou.

“;We don't want that GMO (genetically modified organism) stuff contaminating our plants and valley.”;

Scott and a number of native Hawaiians are supporting a bill to ban the propagation of genetically modified taro in Maui County, including the Valley Isle, Molokai and Lanai.

The County Council's Economic Development, Agriculture and Recreation Committee deferred action on the bill yesterday, pending further review.

A total of 25 people testified at a public hearing last week and yesterday, with testimony on both sides of the issue.

If the bill passes, Maui will be the second county in the state to approve an ordinance banning the raising of genetically engineered taro. The Big Island passed a similar bill in November. A couple of state legislative bills calling for a ban were introduced last year and remain in committees.

Council member William Medeiros of East Maui said he introduced the bill at the request of many taro farmers who also objected to the University of Hawaii patenting and selling plantings of genetically altered taro—a practice that was ended after protests.

“;That's so different from Hawaiian culture where people share cuttings to plant,”; Medeiros said.

Medeiros said farmers are worried genetically altered taro would lead to less diversity in varieties.

He said that while scientists say they are trying to make the taro less prone to disease by altering it genetically, farmers believe there would be less disease if more water were flowing through taro patches, lowering temperatures.

“;It's not that there are many new diseases,”; Medeiros said. “;It's more there's not enough water coming down into the taro patches.”;

Andrew Hashimoto, dean of the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, is against the ban. “;To just say you can't even study it sets a precedent that's very anti-rational from a scientific perspective,”; he said.

Hashimoto said many plants, including corn, have been genetically modified as part of evolution. “;Even humans are mutations.”;

One of the goals of altering the genetic makeup of taro is to make sure the plant survives, Hashimoto added.

Scientists have found that taro has no resistance to some diseases and viruses, he said. In American Samoa, for instance, taro leaf blight decimated the crop in 1993 and 1994.

“;If they come, they may wipe out this industry,”; he said of those diseases.

Hashimoto said a similar scenario occurred when ringspot virus attacked papayas.

The solution, he said, was to develop a “;rainbow papaya”; through altering genes. “;Without that, the papaya industry would have died.”;

Hashimoto said the university believes in preserving diversity and has kept samples of various taro cuttings.

He said the varieties in Hawaii have decreased from about 300 to 63 due to disease and lack of use. Worldwide there are thousands of taro varieties.

Hashimoto said the likelihood of a genetically altered taro plant pollinating another taro is “;remote.”;

He said the usual method of propagating more taro is to plant cuttings.

Hashimoto said his department has some varieties of taro growing together in a patch. “;We've never seen a cross from one to another.”;

Scott said Hawaiians have been raised on a certain variety of taro.

“;That's the type of taro we want to grow,”; she said. “;I don't think we need to make it better.”;