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Scrapyard: Moratorium on GMO Taro?

Two bills before the state Legislature this session call for a 10-year moratorium on any genetic engineering of taro. There’s no question that local farmers need help in developing more disease- and snail-resistant strains of taro, but some Hawaiians feel threatened by the prospect of genetically modified taro. Is a moratorium really needed?


Walter Ritte

Hawaiian Activist

This is a cultural issue, first and foremost. It’s important for people to realize that, to the Hawaiian people, taro is not just a plant. In the Hawaiian genealogy, we trace our first born all the way back, so we know who we are. In our genealogy, haloa, the taro, was the first-born, and we have responsibilities to the first-born. When Hawaiians talk about taro, we’re talking about a family member.

So when we heard about private research companies experimenting with the genes of Hawaiian taro, there was a lot of shock in the Hawaiian community at the disrespect of that. We couldn’t understand how someone could change the genes of our family members without consulting with us, at least.

We’re not arguing with the intentions of researchers.

It’s totally about the process they’re using. They’re acting like the old-time missionaries, trying to save us from ourselves.

Ancient Hawaiians were able to develop more than 300 strains of taro, which could grow in salty areas, and in the mountains and so on. That biodiversity was the key for the longevity of the taro. But it was a natural process. We were able to guide it, but we could trust that nature wouldn’t spit out anything that shouldn’t be there. There were safeguards.

These new genetic modification techniques have no boundaries, no laws or morality. Researchers are playing god. It’s scary to us, because it’s a new industry, and they don’t know quite what they’re doing. They’re just crossing their fingers and hoping that things turn out OK.

Stephanie Whalen


President and Director of the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center

This proposed 10-year moratorium on genetically modified taro is unnecessary. First of all, the research community in Hawaii is already engaged in a dialogue with taro farmers, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, to establish priorities for the taro industry. In addition, the research community has already agreed to limit research in this area with respect to Hawaiian strains of taro.

Secondly, the dangers of genetic engineering have been overblown. Gene manipulation of plants and animals has been going on for centuries. The only difference is that now we can trace specific genetic material, rather than waiting for repeated plantings, and years of selection, to evaluate results. In addition, products introduced into the marketplace whose genetic material has been manipulated are the most extensively tested and regulated agricultural products ever developed.

Genetic engineering technology has been rapidly adopted by more than 10 million farmers in 22 countries, 90 percent of whom are small, resource-poor farmers planting engineered commodity crops such as soybeans, maize, cotton and canola.

The health and safety of those products have been well proven. In two decades, there has not been a single verifiable incident of actual harm to health, safety or the environment. Why wouldn’t this continue to be the case in Hawaii? The genetically engineered virus-resistant papaya, Rainbow, for example, was introduced in Hawaii years ago with considerable publicity and openness. It was well received and continues to be consumed by the vast majority of Hawaii’s citizens.

An important point to remember is that just because there is research on a particular product does not mean it will end up as a commercial product. Ultimately, any real-world application of genetic engineering of taro would require the cooperation and support of local taro growers and significant funding from the public sector.

What do you think?  Weigh in at letters_honmag@pacificbasin.net

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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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