The Future of Kalo

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

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Miyasaka’s preliminary tests on Chinese Bun Long have shown that genetically modified Chinese kalo is resistant to leaf blight. Although she is eager to expand her research, Miyasaka says she respects the community concerns that caused the University of Hawai‘i to place an indefinite moratorium on any research involving Hawaiian types of kalo.

Last year, following months of protests by kalo farmers, students and Native Hawaiians, the university relinquished three patents on kalo breeds. The patented varieties, which had been crossbred for disease resistance, were descendants of the widely grown Maui Lehua variety, whose lineage extends back to the Polynesian kalo first brought to the islands.

Kalo farmers felt the patents critically threatened an ancient Hawaiian cycle of life—that of farmers propagating their own crops by simply replanting the huli, or breeding stock, that bud off the parent plant. To obtain huli of the patented kalo, farmers had to sign a UH licensing agreement stating that “UH owns the taro cultivar. . . .” and prohibiting them from selling, breeding or conducting research on the licensed plants.

“Such provisions can only stifle creative breeding and research on the part of Hawaiian farmers, which UH, as an institution charged with serving the public good, should encourage rather than prohibit,” Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte and Kaua‘i kalo farmer Chris Kobayashi wrote in a letter to UH Interim President David McClain in February 2006, demanding that UH abandon the patents.

“I don’t think Hawaiians can ever be a part of something like [patenting],” Tweetie Lind says. “Nobody can patent anything; that’s a Western thing.”

Penny Levin, a Maui conservation planner and part-time kalo farmer, feels the best way to protect taro is not by patenting it and tampering with its genes; but rather by guarding Hawai‘i’s borders stringently against invasive species, and providing local farmers with the resources they need.

“Taro farming has been pushed to the side,” she says, explaining that some farmers don’t have enough land to let lo‘i remain fallow to replenish the soil. “Traditionally, all kinds of mulch like hau and kukui were used. When chemical fertilizers came on the scene, they were easier initially; but over the last sixty years, the quality of the soil has changed. That whole ecosystem has been broken.

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