The Future of Kalo

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

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“Farmers have lost diversity because the commercial market only demands one or two varieties. . . . Plus, they’ve been dealing with a lack of good, strong, cold water for over 100 years,” Levin says, referring to the chronic diversion of streamflows for the cultivation of sugarcane and pineapple. In addition, she points to “more than twenty years of an aggressive apple snail that doesn’t care if a taro plant is GMO or not when it eats it to the ground. If we heal those things first, kalo will flourish again.”

Out in Kipahulu, the Linds use their lo‘i as an outdoor classroom, inviting residents and visitors to come learn about kalo and its significance to Hawaiian culture. It’s a hands-on theme that is echoed in a new course in “kalo culture” offered at University of Hawai‘i–Hilo. Taught both in English and Hawaiian, the revolutionary course shares not only the traditional practices that instructor Hokuao Pellegrino and his family use at their Waikapu farm, but also broadens students’ perspective by taking them out into the field to visit with GMO researchers like Miyasaka.

Pellegrino describes the course, which took four years to formulate, as “epic.” “It’s so important for people to look at traditional and modern methods of farming, and to understand the culture and the science to get a clear view of what is going on,” he says.

Education is needed at the legislative level as well. On March 30, students, kalo farmers, Native Hawaiians and community members rallied at the state Capitol, waving signs that read, “No GMO Taro,” “No Kill the Taro Bill,” “Haloa Family.” The protesters urged Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Clifton Tsuji to hear a bill that would place a ten-year moratorium on the genetic modification of kalo. But Tsuji deferred the bill on the basis that more study was needed on such a complicated and controversial issue.

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