May 2006
Subject: PGR News from the Pacific: Taro in Hawaii

The role of Taro in Hawaiian culture

From the Molokai Island Times.

In January of this year, Kauai'i taro farmer Christine Kobayashi and I sent a letter to UH officials demanding the University give up its patents on three varieties of taro. Here, I will attempt to clear up misconceptions about our efforts and explain why Hawaiians object to UH's patents on taro.Nothing in Hawaiian culture is more sacred than kalo. Wakea, the sky father, and Ho'ohokukalani, the star mother, gave birth to Haloa, the first-born. Haloa grew into kalo, the first taro plant. The gods' second-born was man, whose kuleana was to care for Haloa, the elder brother.

This geneology is more than a fanciful story, a 'myth.' Haloa (kalo) is a metaphor for our obligation to malama (reverence and protect) the land and all living things of Hawai'i. Guided by Haloa, Hawaiians prospered for over a millenia. We populated the Islands, caring for and sustained by kalo wherever we settled. Like kalo, our land and waters come from the gods. Throughout history, they were managed by the Ali'i (chiefs) for the collective benefit of our people. The concept of land ownership was introduced by Western business interests in 1848. Hawaiians refer to the subsequent period as 'the Mahele', when foreigners took over our land and carved it up, transforming the gift of the gods into their private property.

As land was bought up for development, and water diverted for plantations and hotels, kalo also suffered. Thanks to the mahele, kalo production and diversity and health have all declined.The University of Hawai'i (UH) says that its scientists will rescue kalo by manipulating its genes and becoming its absolute owner. We see this as a second mahele, a mana mahele, because it involves removing kalo from the collective care of Hawaiians and giving UH complete control over it. UH has already patented three varieties of taro. Farmers who wish to grow these patented taro must 'license' them from UH, and are prohibited from selling, distributing, breeding or conducting research on them. Farmers must also pay UH a portion of their corm sales, and agree to allow UH personnel to enter their property and sample their taro to make sure they are not 'illegally' breeding UH's "property."

UH scientists also say they will save kalo by manipulating its genes in laboratories. Have they been successful? Despite their claims, the answer is no. Years of gene-splicing has not produced any improvement in taro. This failure is the main reason UH's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources agreed to a moratorium on genetic manipulation of Hawaiian taro last spring (though gene-splicing of Chinese taro continues).

Experienced taro farmers have criticized UH's patented taro varieties, which were developed by simple cross-breeding. (Hawaiians have practiced cross-breeding for centuries and never patented the progeny.) Oahu taro grower Ken Cook tells us they are 'flat tires,' their initially higher yields 'deflating' after several seasons of cultivation. Cook's associate, Paul Reppun, says they are not significantly more disease-resistant than other types of taro. Kauai'i taro farmer Christine Kobayashi tells us that Pa'lehua, one of the patented varieties, makes poor-tasting poi.While we believe that UH administrators and scientists have good intentions, sadly, they lack the mana to understand that genetic manipulation and patents are a second mahele that descecrates kalo and everything it means for Hawaiians. And it hasn't worked, either.

We have no objection to UH scientists breeding taro. But they must consult with Hawaiians to ensure their practices don't violate Haloa. This they have not done. Instead of patents, for instance, they could discuss with Hawaiians the possibility of obtaining Plant Variety Protection certificates for new taro varieties which permit farmers to conduct their own breeding and research while prohibiting commercial use by others. Instead of genetic manipulation, they could use marker-assisted breeding and other advanced techniques.In the end, however, we all must realize that kalo is not to blame for its decline, and high-tech attempts to "improve" it will likely continue to fail.

UH must realize that patents on taro are an abomination and must be relinquished immediately. Kalo can only be saved by restoring the soil and streams and culture which has nourished it throughout our history. This will take political will and courage on the part of UH officials - standing up for kalo against powerful development interests, for instance. And it will require renewed dedication and effort by all of us to strengthen Haloa.
Confusion Grows Over Taro Patent
Julia Norton-Dennis - (KGMB9 Radio)

Taro, is not just a sacred native Hawaiian plant. It's a Hawaiian ancestor.
"The main reason why we're here is to protect our kupuna," said Noe Goodyear-Kaopua, who works at Hâlau Kû Mâna Public Charter School.

"One of our first kupuna being Haloa, so that's the kalo, the kalo is the elder sibling of Hawaiian people," she added.

But, the Hawaiians believe their ancestor is being threatened by modern science.
The University of Hawai'i's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources has been awarded a patent for a new breed of taro.

"So, we're drawing a line in the sand, and we're saying university you have crossed over that line. You are going no further," said Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte.

Hawaiians oppose any genetic modification of their native taro.

"I'm really against it," said Palala Harada, a student at Kanuikapono Public Charter School on Kaua'i, "because in our belief system, we believe that haloa is very sacred to us and that we should care for it as an elder rather than just a plant." "To us, there's a spirit that comes with all things Hawai'i or Hawaiian," Harada said.

And the Hawaiians built a rock alter on the lawn of Bachman Hall at the University of Hawai'i Saturday, to demonstrate their commitment to protect their ancestors, and their opposition to any genetic modification of their sacred plant.

There's some confusion over what the patent is for.

"We are not doing any work on genetically engineering the Hawaiian taros," said Andrew Hashimoto, Dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

The college says it simply combined two varieties of taro, a Hawaiian variety and a Palauan variety, and came up with a stronger plant that resists disease.

"The taro that was the result of this, after various trials, was demonstrated some degree of resistance and that was the concept that was patented," Hashimoto clarified.

When asked if the words "genetically modified" were in the patent, Hashimoto simply answered "no."

The college says it's all a misunderstanding -- one it's willing to discuss with native Hawaiians. "We've tried to inform them, but that perception seems to persist," Hashimoto said.
Many questioning why UH should own hybrids
By Jan TenBruggencate, Honolulu Advertiser Science Writer

The University of Hawai'i's acquisition in 2002 of patents on three taro hybrids has launched a series of protests by farmers, Hawaiians and others concerned about the cultural, environmental and economic impacts of taro research.

University officials agree it's a difficult issue and want to launch discussions to determine how to proceed. "The conversation needs to occur right now," said Gary Ostrander, UH-Manoa vice chancellor for research. "Given how important taro is, I think it's a moment at which everyone involved should sit down and come to a solution."
Demonstrators upped the ante with a rally Saturday on the UH campus at which they erected a stone ahu, or altar, with a carved figure of a man holding a taro plant aloft. The figures represent Haloa, in Hawaiian tradition the elder brother of the first human, from whose body grew the first taro, or kalo. Moloka'i activist Walter Ritte said the taro issue is a sensitive one.
"They're going to first manipulate it, then patent it and then own it. They're telling us Hawaiians what's going to happen to our own biodiversity," Ritte said.
Kaua'i taro farmer Chris Kobayashi said growers for years have participated in UH taro-breeding experiments, and there never was a question of someone owning the resulting hybrids. "We pay taxes for the university, we help them grow it and now suddenly they own it. We have to pay a licensing fee if we use it," at a time when farmers' costs are rising fast, she said. UH officials said the patents may actually protect the taro industry. Patents are included in faculty union contracts, which provide that the inventor or breeder gets half the patent fees after the university's patenting costs are covered.
"If we don't patent it, Monsanto or someone else could slightly modify it and patent it. The thing, from our perspective, is how do you protect the intellectual property," said Andy Hashimoto, dean of the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
He said the rules are not unreasonable. If farmers want to buy a patented cultivar from the university, it costs $2 per huli — the planting stock — which covers the university's cost of production. Thereafter, farmers can grow it for three years and then must pay 2 percent of their profits from its use to UH. Any taro that is for home use or is obtained by trading with other farmers has no cost.
Some of the roughly 200 people who attended Saturday's demonstration on the lawn near Bachman Hall said they also are concerned about the university's activities in the genetic manipulation of taro.
"I think that genetic manipulation poses threats environmentally. I don't think enough testing has been done at all to determine if it's safe," said Sarah Sullivan of Hawai'i Seed, a statewide coalition of groups opposing genetic modification of crops.
Kobayashi said researchers are inserting into taro the genes from corn, wheat, rice and other crops. "You don't know what's in it anymore. It's not taro anymore," she said.
Hashimoto said UH has a moratorium on any genetic manipulation of Hawaiian taro varieties, although work is being performed with Chinese taro, bun long, which is not used for poi.
Protesting a patent on taro, May 02, 2006
Protesters gathered at Bachman Hall Saturday to protest the patent on taro. Many members of the community showed up to participate in the event that included hula, singing and pounding kalo among other things.

"The University's genetic altering on taro is an assault on our genealogy," said Andre Perez, one of the organizers of the protest.

Protesters built an altar on the lawn of Bachman Hall that remained there through yesterday afternoon.

"Putting a patent on taro is like putting a copyright on Jesus, and every time you pray to him you have to pay me with bread and wine," said participant Mario Perez.

Posted by Luigi to Plant Genetic Resources News from the Pacific at 5/01/2006