The Future of Kalo

If Hawaiians’ elder brother is in danger, is genetic modification the answer?

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“Hawaiians have always been naturally organic,” Tweetie says. “When you step into the lo‘i, you weed the taro, shove the weeds down in the mud, turn it up a little, give it time to rot. That will give nutrients back to the ‘aina [land]. It’s a lot of labor, but it’s a labor of love.”

These techniques, combined with growing varieties of Hawaiian kalo that are hardy in wetlands (and good for poi), enable the Linds to minimize the loss to disease usually given as justification for researching GMO kalo.

Outside of Kapahu, things are not so good. Kalo is in trouble statewide, says University of Hawai‘i-Hilo agronomist Dr. Susan Miyasaka. There were once over 300 named kalo varieties in Hawai‘i; today, fewer than 84 remain. Kalo yields across the state have been declining over the past fifty years, with the lowest production since 1946 recorded in 2005, according to Miyasaka.

She blames introduced diseases and pests such as leaf blight, pocket rot and apple snails for much of the problem. But those threats are minor when compared with a disease called the Alomae-Bobone viral complex. The complex, which has not yet arrived here, has wiped out 96 percent of native kalo varieties in the Solomon Islands.

“Imagine if that virus reaches Hawai‘i—what would it do to our taro production?” Miyasaka asks. She believes that the only way to protect the species from possible devastation is to look at all technologies available, including genetic modification.

“I’ve talked to some Hawaiians, and they feel if they had a relative dying of some disease, and there was a new technology that could save their relative, they would want to explore that technology,” Miyasaka says. “Genetic engineering offers the possibility of increased disease resistance beyond the level found within the taro germplasm. And the taro variety remains the same genetically, except for the few new genes engineered into it.” For example, a kalo plant could have 40,000 genes, and genetic engineering would add just 3 new genes, Miyasaka says. “It’s a very precise technology.”

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