The sky in the east was first streaked then smeared with pink when Koko and I set out walking this morning, while the clouds mauka were so dark and low as to render the mountains non-existent. Yet as the sun climbed, even this black mass was tinted rosy.
As we walked, the wind, which had roared up from the valley in the blackness of pre-pre-dawn, moaning and crying and tugging at the house, continued its song, with the sighing camphor, squeaking albezzia and clanging wind chimes at a neighbor’s house joining in the tune.
And when we returned home, I weeded among the black, green and variegated stems of the taro as it bowed and swayed and danced to the wild music.
Today is the first-ever Taro Festival at the state Capitol, according to a press release from KAHEA, which is joining the Hawaiian Caucus to sponsor the event. It seems that from 11 a.m. to noon, “Taro lovers from all over Hawaii will unite to set a state record for the most people in modern times to kui kalo, or pound taro, together in one gathering. Organic Hawaiian taro will be provided.”
That last phrase is significant, because it seems that poi-pounding was notably absent from last week’s Agriculture Day at the Legislature, according to Farmer Jerry, who did attend. He also said organic farmers and the Hawaii Organic Farmers Assn. did not participate in Ag Day, as they usually do, apparently because they wanted to do their own thing with lawmakers.
Jerry was not the only one to express concern that the controversy over growing genetically modified crops, and especially legislative efforts to prohibit research on taro, is dividing Hawaii’s farmers at a time when they need more than ever to be united.
It seems that conventional farmers are pushing for co-existence. But when it comes to GMOs, that’s not always an easy state to achieve, largely because pollen and seeds can travel, as has been discovered with Big Island papaya. And if a crop is found to have been contaminated with GMOs, it cannot be certified organic, which creates an economic hardship for organic farmers. They’re concerned about their livelihood, just like the farmers who view genetically modified crops as offering an edge against their old enemies of disease and drought.
The emphasis among GMO opponents on taro as a culturally sacred crop has also grated on some, with one farmer commenting: “As soon as they made it a religious issue all discussion went out the window. Once you play that card, there’s just no way to argue about it.”
It seems to me that whichever side you’re on, it all comes down to a belief system, in part because so little independent research has been done on the environmental implications of releasing these organisms into the natural world and the long-term health ramifications of eating them. Similarly, there’s no scientific evidence that genetic tinkering will give commercial taro farmers the high-yield and disease resistant qualities they’re seeking.
And then there's the “religious” — I think ethical is perhaps a better word — issue of whether human beings have the right to experiment with culturally important crops or do things that would not otherwise occur in nature, such as crossing genes from organisms in different kingdoms. It’s an issue that’s been raised by a number of indigenous groups that have strong links to plants, including the Anishinaabeg, who have opposed genetic research on wild rice at the University of Minnesota. According to a Bioneers conference speech by Winona LaDuke that's well worth watching:
One of our chiefs said, “Who gave them permission?” And that is the ethical question, isn’t it? Who gave anybody rights to change the DNA sequence of life forms?
It took three years, LaDuke said, but they finally got the Minnesota Legislature to adopt a law requiring a full EIS before any genetic engineering work is done on wild rice.
These are our relatives. We have to restore our relationship with our original relatives that have roots.
In other environmental news, Earthjustice has filed a motion asking the courts to enforce orders dating back 30 years that require the state to protect habitat critical to the Palila.
The action is asking the court to order the State to construct a mouflonproof fence around the palila’s critical habitat no later than June 1, 2011.
“The state is not taking effective action to keep the sheep out of the palila’s critical habitat, and the palila population is suffering for it,” said John Harrison, president of the Hawai`i Audubon Society. Between 2003 and 2008, the palila population plummeted more than 60 percent, from an estimated 6,600 in 2003 to between 2,200 and 2,600 birds in 2008. “Palila are on a crash-course toward extinction in large part because browsing animals are allowed to continue to destroy their only habitat,” said Harrison.
The story, which I covered in some depth for the Honolulu Weekly and in a more condensed fashion for WildBird Magazine, intrigued me because it underscored how even legal protection doesn’t always stop a species from sliding toward extinction, especially when there's no enforcement.