The Future of Kalo

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

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In 2008, the moratorium will again be brought before the legislature.

Warren Watanabe, president of the Maui County Farm Bureau, says he will testify against the bill. “We support all production, and that includes organic, conventional and biotech, across all commodities,” he says. “We support them because we feel it’s the farmers’ choice as to what type of practice they select.”

At the same time, Watanabe says, Maui County Farm Bureau is anxious to respect the cultural aspects of the crop. “It’s about finding that balance,” he says. “In Hawai‘i, we want to be recognized as a taro-producing area. . . . Other states are looking at taro production commercially. For Hawai‘i to lose that identity would be a tragic loss for the state. We don’t say biotech is the only way to go, but we need to keep our options open.”

But with biotechnology still an emerging science, a world of unknowns exists. According to Levin, the controls are too few and too much is at stake to tamper with something so precious.

“It makes me very sad, because globally, this is the last staple crop that has not been genetically modified—taro is the one thing they haven’t been able to touch,” she says. “With their last breath, taro farmers will keep this stuff alive—it’s their lifestyle, their history, their passion. Without water, without access to land and resources, it’s hard to do—and yet they’re still here. Taro farmers don’t give up easily. They’re pa‘a [steadfast] to the land.”

Many farmers say they won’t hesitate to testify before the legislature again next year. “The moratorium for GMO kalo would benefit us all,” Levin says. “It would give everyone the time to better understand the issue and put the necessary protections in place before we head farther down a path from which we can’t return.”

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