Even though I’m not in his House District, I contacted Rep. Jimmy Tokioka yesterday and asked him to support HB 1663, which would place a moratorium on GMO research on all taro varieties, and oppose HB 1226, which would take away the right of the state and counties to regulate GMO research and cultivation. Both bills are being heard in the Agriculture committee today, and Jimmy is a member.
In his reply, sent at 9:10 last night, Jimmy helpfully included a template that would allow me to submit written testimony for the record, which I had already done.
And then he expressed his views:
I wanted to let you know that I have met with parties on both sides of the fence of the genetically modified organism debate and I have grave concerns on passing any legislation that will place an indefinite moratorium on the research of non-Hawaiian varieties of taro. I understand the cultural perspective on wanting to ban genetically modifying Hawaiian taro but HB 1226 is asking for a permanent moratorium on research on all varieties of taro including the Chinese, Japanese, Puerto Rican and all other types of taro. If we ban genetically modified research and development we will be unable to combat disease or assist our taro farmers in sustainability practices for the future. For example we can reference the debilitating effect the Varroa Mite has had on the honeybee population and the Bunchy Top Virus on the banana plant. I think it is only prudent that we at least allow for the door to remain open in regards to research on non-Hawaiian varieties of taro as long as this research is done within the confines of a secure and closed facility that will not allow for cross contamination and at no time will open field testing be conducted.
I have highlighted and attached below a portion of the testimony previously submitted for SB 709 (genetically modified organisms; taro) from the Kauai Taro Growers Association which is comprised of 42 taro farmers, representing 93% of Kauai taro farmers and 396 acres on Kauai. KTGA signed a petition opposing an indefinite moratorium on the research of non-Hawaiian varieties of taro. They said that their opposition does not mean that they are pro GMO and they do support the Native Hawaiian culture and agree with UH CTAHR that there be no GMO research on the Hawaiian varieties. They also agree that if research is to be done the Hawaiian community needs to be consulted and certain controls need to be in place in order to ensure that all research is done in a safe and permitted facility and that no open field test is conducted.
And here are the excerpts from the KTGA testimony, which seems to indicate that it views GMO taro as some sort of savior that will solve all the other troubles facing the industry:
According to the USDA, National Agricultural Statistic Service (NASS), taro production is at a tipping point and without continual research and assistance may never recover to the 6,800,000 pounds harvested in the year 2000 as compared to the 2008 harvest of 4,300,000 pounds, a short fall of 2,500,000 pounds. Taro farming is one of the hardest and labor intensive occupations and vulnerable to the weather, agricultural theft, apple snail, diseases, water shortages, irrigation ditch repairs, increased supply costs and labor shortage.
Throughout the past seventeen plus years, Kauai taro farmers have worked closely with CTAHR and provided access to their fields for research to improve their crop yields, find solutions for apple snail infestations and diseases, and test different Hawaiian varieties and different hybrid varieties of taro that will produce the best poi possible. As science progresses, new methods have developed that will provide taro farmers with different options. This research provides the hope to continue this very difficult job and to pass it on to the next generation. If not, who will provide the taro and poi?
… The taro farmers are asking for help to preserve their livelihood and future, by not imposing an indefinite moratorium on the other varieties that may someday provide an answer to a disease or problem that may occur. To start research at the time of occurrence will be too late and time will be wasted to undo the moratorium while the taro crops decline.
There are some inferences that the commercial farmers are only after the money and profit, but that is not the case. At up to $8.99 per pound of poi in Hawaii, the farmers are only receiving 6% of that at $.60 per pound. Statistics show the declining trend for taro farming in Hawaii and the taro farmers need help and are asking for help so that you will not say to us, “Why didn’t you tell us?” And what will be the answer when the poi consumers ask, “Where’s our poi, what happened to our taro? Where are the taro farmers?”
Aside from the inherent conflict in first stating that farmers are “asking for help to preserve their livelihood” and then claiming they’re not only after the money and profit, I understand the concerns of the commercial growers. No one wants to see taro disappear.
Still, it seems to me that declining taro production is due predominantly to land and labor issues. I know a number of taro farmers who lost their leases, most notably in the prime taro lands owned by Gaylord Wilcox behind the Hanalei shopping center, and although they wanted to continue farming, they had nowhere else to go.
The KTGA was notably silent when these farmers asked for help in retaining their leases. If KTGA is serious about increasing production, it would be well served to put its energy into helping more farmers get on the land and ensuring water is available, instead of putting all its hopes into CTAHR developing some magic disease-resistant, high-yield GMO variety that only the big commercial growers want to grow and can afford to buy.
As for implementing safeguards to ensure that all testing is done “in a safe and permitted facility,” with no open field tests, well, that’s fine and dandy, but what about when these GMO varieties are released for public use? The big issue with GMO is containment, whether through pollen drift or the unintended mixing of seed, or in this case, huli.
CTAHR can’t guarantee that GMO varieties won’t mix with Hawaiian varieties. And if Jimmy thinks that GMO has anything to do with "sustainability practices," he is gravely misinformed. GMO is the antithesis of sustainability.
My guess is that the research moratorium bill will be shot down. It’s just really unfortunate that an industry group primarily comprising non-Hawaiians is holding so much sway on an issue that is predominantly cultural — and not their culture, either.