Most residents back county resolutions for cultural reasons

by Nathan Eagle - THE GARDEN ISLAND

More than a dozen residents opposed to genetically modified taro hoisted the culturally important plant and flaunted “protect your roots” shirts behind farmers who testified before the Kaua‘i County Council, yesterday, at the Historic County Building.

The council has proposed resolutions supporting three bills pending at the state Legislature that would impose a 10-year moratorium on developing or growing genetically engineered taro, create a taro security and purity task force and fund statewide research on the apple snail, an invasive pest threatening the crop.

Supporters, representing the vast majority of speakers who addressed the council during the hours-long hearing, said messing with the genetic make-up of taro disrespects Native Hawaiians who consider the edible plant sacred. They also argued that a lack of information on the effects of genetically altered food, specifically taro, presents real risks to consumers.

Opponents claim genetic engineering research could produce disease-resistant taro, securing its future. They also said there is little chance of cross-contamination between varieties because of the nature of the species.

The council did not take action by press time. Testimony for the hearing, which started at 2:15 p.m., was still flowing hours later.

“Don’t fool around with the taro,” said John A‘ana, a Westside farmer for the past 30 years, who held up a taro plant as he addressed council. “The bottom line is you need to show respect for the Hawaiian culture.”

Wendell Rich, the site manager for Monsanto in Hanapepe, opposed the council resolutions but said that the multi-national biotechnology company and leading producer of genetically engineered seeds and herbicides has no plans to do anything with taro.

“The disease argument to me is a fear factor,” Anahola resident Hale Mawae said. “GMO represents control and manipulation of our food crops. Do we give that to these corporate companies?”

A Maui County Council committee and the Big Island County Council have passed similar resolutions supporting the state’s effort to temporarily ban work related to genetically modified taro.

Roy Oyama, representing the Kauai Farm Bureau, voiced opposition to a moratorium on testing genetically engineered taro.

“I don’t care what you tell me, research is needed,” he said, noting concerns over viral threats.

He acknowledged that the bureau did not poll its 360-plus members, saying the decision was based on a policy statement adopted at the group’s annual state convention.

“Many of them don’t know what’s going on,” he said, referring to local members. “Agriculture is burning in my heart. I want to see it progress and feed every one of you.”

Senate Bill 958, which would impose the 10-year moratorium, was deferred after a seven-hour hearing March 19 before the House Agriculture Committee. An overwhelming majority of testimony delivered at the Capitol reportedly supported the resolution.

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 held a hearing yesterday at the Capitol on Senate Bill 2915, which would create the taro task force.

Taro and taro markets are in a state of decline, according to the state legislation. The threats that taro farming families and communities face in cultivating taro are numerous and growing.

Taro lands in Hawai‘i represent less than 1 percent of all agricultural lands in cultivation in the state, yet it remains the most important traditional cultural crop in Hawai‘i, the state legislation says.

“The way the issue has been handled is ripping the community apart,” Kapa‘a resident Adam Asquith said, supporting council’s proposed resolutions.

County Council members Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho and Mel Rapozo authored the resolutions.

“This bill does not prohibit continued dialogue,” Iseri-Carvalho said. “Why not be safe before we proceed?”

See a future edition of The Garden Island for follow-up on yesterday’s meeting.

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

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