Bill Looks at Future of Genetically Engineered Taro

Jim Cain
Jim Cain

HAWAII STATE CAPITOL (KHNL) -- A carry-over senate bill from last session looks to temporarily ban scientists from genetically engineering taro. If it passes, the moratorium would last ten years.

Farmers and scientists clash over the future of taro in Hawaii.

"To genetically manipulate it, not only is it disrespectful, it's economic suicide," said Jim Cain, a Big Island taro farmer.

The issue has created a wedge between the science and farming communities.

Researchers say Senate Bill 958 would also stop them from finding ways to reverse Hawaii's shrinking taro industry. But farmers say, genetically modifying taro could lead to widespread contamination.

Taro is a major food staple in Hawaii.

"It nourishes spiritually as well as physically," said Cain. "It's vitally important. It is the identity of Hawaii. It is our roots."

And it's at the root of a controversial bill that would impose a ten year moratorium on growing genetically engineered taro.

Some say it would hinder scientific progress.

"I mean it takes years to get any type of positive research that will help farmers in general," said Alan Takemoto, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation. "So we feel it needs to have it open just in case, this technology is necessary."

In the past 60 years, Hawaii's taro production went down by 75 percent, from 14 million to 3.6 million pounds.

And the amount Hawaii's farm land devoted to taro is also down. Since 1900, it went from 1,300 acres to 360 acres, a drop of more than 70 percent.

But many taro farmers support the legislation, saying they strongly oppose the genetic modification of taro.

People like Jim Cain from the Big Island. He says the reason behind Hawaii's shrinking taro industry is much more basic.

"The lack of production is because we don't have enough people growing taro," he said. "Economically, it's hard making a living as a farmer."

And Cain says, genetically engineered taro could further cripple his industry with contamination.

"The threat of contamination is real," he said. "It's already happening with low-quality hybrids, with foreign cultivars that have been introduced to our lo'i."

But scientists hope lawmakers keep an open mind.

"Whether genetic engineering is the solution, I'm not sure," said Andrew Hashimoto, the director of the College of Tropical Agriculture at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "But we have to look at all the options available to be able to address these issues."

The bill is scheduled to be heard by the house agriculture committee Wednesday morning at nine.