Kauai County Council Votes No GMO Kalo!

Resolution supports 10-year moratorium

by Nathan Eagle - THE GARDEN ISLAND

A deeply rooted community debate over the future of a culturally important crop on Kaua‘i climaxed late Thursday night at the Historic County Building.

After hearing hours of heartfelt pleas and hopeful comments from farmers and scientists, keiki and kupuna, the County Council passed a resolution supporting a bill pending in the state Legislature that would place a 10-year moratorium on growing or developing genetically modified taro.

Councilmembers Mel Rapozo, Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho, Tim Bynum and Jay Furfaro cast votes in favor of the resolution; JoAnn Yukimura, Ron Kouchi and Bill “Kaipo” Asing against it. The split 4-3 vote reflected a torn community.

Supporters want taro, or kalo in Hawaiian, to remain pure. Generations of Native Hawaiians consider it disrespectful to even consider messing with the genetic make-up of the sacred plant.

Legend has it Kalo sprouted from Haloa, the stillborn child of Wakea, the sky father, and Ho‘ohokukalani, the star mother, to become the first taro plant thousands of years ago.

Kalo provides the kanaka maoli’s life-giving sustenance, poi, and is seen as the older brother of mankind, according to Senate Bill 958, which would impose the temporary ban on genetically modified taro.

Bynum, a first-term councilman, said he was pulled in by the cultural arguments.

“I’m a transplant here. I was embraced with aloha by a whole lot of people who live here,” he said yesterday. “They’re saying it’s sacred and are asking to honor the culture. That’s what wooed me. It was my toughest decision yet.”

While the vast majority of oral testimony pushed for the resolution’s passage, some residents argued that genetic engineering research could uncover ways to produce a disease-resistant plant — securing its future.

“All the taro farmers understand and are sensitive to the cultural significance of taro to the Hawaiian community and also have reservations about GMO taro,” Kaua‘i Taro Growers Association President Rodney Haraguchi said in his written testimony. “However, they are opposed to have a law passed for 10 years restricting research which may be necessary.”

Kaua‘i farmers produce roughly 75 percent of the state’s taro, Bynum said.

The crop comprises less than 1 percent of all agricultural lands in cultivation in Hawai‘i, according to state legislation.

The public hearing spanned some nine hours with the final roll call vote around 11:30 p.m., Bynum said. The council had to wade through this testimony in addition to input from another public hearing two weeks ago and a steady stream of written remarks.

Yukimura released a written statement yesterday explaining why she voted against the resolution.

“I do not believe it is pono to pass a law instituting a 10-year moratorium without taking the time to understand the objections, reservations and concerns of those who produce the majority of the taro in the state — most of whom are Kaua‘i farmers, our neighbors and friends who for generations have been keeping poi on all of our tables,” she says. “This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe a moratorium might or should be eventually instituted, but I think that decision should be made by the stakeholders, not county councils or legislators — at least not until after those with a stake in taro have gone through a process and come to a consensus or an agreement to disagree.”

Council deferred the resolution at its March 12 meeting after hearing from residents who rallied with signs and taro-related shirts. The numbers were almost double on Thursday when an estimated 30 community members, some carrying taro plants as proof of a healthy GMO-free crop, filled council chambers.

The resolution’s passage makes a policy statement, Bynum said, noting that its weight remains uncertain.

There is no genetically modified taro in production in the state and the University of Hawai‘i recently abandoned attempts to patent some strains of the plant.

There are some 70 taro varieties in existence today, Senate Bill 958 states, down from an estimated 300 or more at the time European explorers arrived.

“For me, the question is how do we solve the problems of taro security and purity, including the debate over the 10-year moratorium, without breaking the ‘ohana apart?” Yukimura says. “I passionately believe that there is a way to do that. That way is often harder because it takes deep listening, suspending our judgments and positions and really seeking to understand before seeking to be understood. But, in fact, the solutions to our problems, whatever the solutions may be, depend on the ‘ohana staying together and working together.”

When ‘ohana is broken into root words, “oha” is the smaller taro corms growing from the older part of the plant that is used to feed one’s family and “ana” is a conjunctive word connoting regeneration or procreation, according to state legislation.

“In voting against the council resolution supporting SB 958, I know that there will be people who say that I am for GMOs. Or, that I don’t have respect for the native Hawaiian culture, which will hurt me, but I accept that condemnation with the humility of knowing that in this job as a councilmember I will sometimes be misunderstood,” Yukimura says. “I hope some people will try to read my heart and will understand that it is my respect for relationships and ‘ohana, also a value of our host culture, that underlies my position, and my passionate belief that people can come together, respect and listen to each other and resolve an issue together.”

Both sides of the debate acknowledge a lack of information on the health risks associated with genetically modified taro.

Moratorium supporters say the temporary ban would provide time to learn more, but critics say it simply goes too far.

The House Agriculture Committee deferred Senate Bill 958 on March 19.

The council unanimously passed two separate taro-related resolutions in support of Senate Bill 2518 and Senate Bill 2915.

The House referred Senate Bill 2518, which would provide $500,000 in grant funding for taro research, to the Ways and Means Committee.

The House Finance Committee on Thursday passed an amended version of Senate Bill 2915, which would create a taro security and purity task force.

County councils on Neighbor Islands have recently passed measures supporting Senate Bill 958. Big Island passed its resolution Jan. 24. Maui passed its version out of committee two weeks ago and it is expected to head to a full council for a vote yesterday.

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com

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