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Modified foods in the crosshairs again

Opponents of the patenting and genetic modification of taro are scheduled to protest for the second time in two months today at the University of Hawai’i’s administration building.

In March, about 350 people gathered to demand that UH drop the patents it has held on three taro varieties since 2002. Organizers expect more than 1,000 this time around.

Critics argue that it is unfair for the university to own patents on something they say has been around since the arrival of the Polynesians hundreds of years ago.

“(The university) patents taro, and now they’re trying to tell Hawaiian farmers who have planted taro for centuries that they have to buy taro from the state?” asked Mililani Trask, a Big Island resident and Pacific Basin representative to the United Nations permanent forum on indigenous issues.

U.S. patent law dictates that farmers wishing to purchase breeding stock of the patented hybrids of taro, or kalo, must sign a licensing agreement with UH.

“Kalo was not invented by the University of Hawai’i, and they have no right to own it or license it,” said taro grower Walter Ritte.

The three hybrids, Pa’lehua, Pa’akala and Pauakea, resulted from a cross between a Palauan taro and a widely-used Hawaiian strain.

Opponents argue that the Hawaiian parent taro, Maui Lehua, descends from centuries of breeding, demonstrating the existence of prior art and invalidating the patent.

Throughout the years, taro farmers have always crossed breeds, and growers say that hundreds of species have been brought to the islands and mixed with other species.

By nature, taro is resilient and low-maintenance, and it often cross-breeds on its own, through pollination from birds, insects or wind.

In addition to a potential monopoly on common breeding stock, or huli, opponents say patented hybrids look and behave exactly like native varieties, and often farmers are not aware that they may be growing and harvesting a patented variety, similar to what happened to American and Canadian corn farmers in the late 1990s.

Monsanto, the agricultural giant that filed hundreds of lawsuits against farmers in the U.S. and Canada over patented corn, is often used as an example of the worst-case scenario.

Trask warned that, in a worst-case scenario, UH could have the right to uproot the crops of farmers found to be infringing on patent law. At the very least, she said, the university will own the rights to the crops and the breeding stock.

When taro is harvested, the huli, a 12- to 18-inch stem, remains. Farmers often share them with each other, replanting someone else’s huli on their own land. Doing that with patented taro would be illegal.

“You’re not supposed to share it,” said Hanalei taro farmer Chris Kobayashi. “You’re supposed to destroy it when you’re done with it. You can’t use it for breeding, all the things that farmers normally do.”

Kobayashi heads up the Kauai Taro Growers Association, and recently began circulating a resolution on genetically-engineered taro.

Opposition recently suffered a setback when state Senate Bill 2749, which proposed a 10-year moratorium on testing, propagating, cultivating, growing and raising genetically-engineered taro, failed to gain traction in the state Legislature. But if this week is any indication, the fight is far from over.

Today’s day-long protest marks the end of several days of events.

Yesterday afternoon, the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies hosted a symposium on taro-patenting. The night before, Moloka’i’s Hemowai Brothers screened an episode of their popular television show at Manoa that dealt with GMOs, or genetically-modified organisms.

While technically two different issues, GMOs and taro patents have drawn the ire of the same opposition, and the fight is often waged on a unified front.

This week’s activities were organized by Hawaii SEED, which oversees anti-GMO organizations on the outer islands. On Kaua’i, where about 65 percent of the state’s taro is grown, GMO Free Kauai held a demonstration earlier this month to commemorate Joint International GM Opposition Day.

Proponents of genetically-modified foods point to a lack of communication as the biggest obstacle.

“I know we can do better in our communities, informing them about what’s going on,” said Kevin Kelly, UH’s director of business development.

“The technology is moving very rapidly, and it’s very difficult for the people in the field to keep up with it, much less the general public.

“There’s a lot of room for education,” Kelly said. “Most people, when they understand it, think that it’s not such a bad thing.”

One of the main objections to GMOs is the injection of certain viruses and bacteria, which manipulate the native cells of the organism to boost immunity to disease and pests.

“You don’t assimilate the genes from food,” Kelly said.

In the end, Kelly acknowledged projects like these will never enjoy the full support of the public.

“I don’t think we’ll ever answer all the questions people want answered,” he said.

Because taro is sacred to the Hawaiian culture, Kelly and other proponents, including UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Administration Dean Andrew Hashimoto, who was not available for comment, face deeply-emotional and religious resistance as well as scientific and economic opposition.

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