Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Musings: Relatives With Roots

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.


Anonymous said...

who gave genentech permission to do what they do?

the cross pollination concern seems legit, tho (to me at least) the larger gmo fears still seem to be largely largly driven by an age old ~ "new technology apprehension" thing

Katy said...

Great post Joan.

Speaking of religion, and even cultural practice, there's the question of the hundreds of people who protested over the weekend in Lihue against granting equal rights to same-sex couples, all in the name of Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention the illegality of the most useful plant in the world, cannabis. A plant that makes paper, food, building supplies, rope, cloth and medicine. A plant that was grown in abundance by the founding members of our "democracy". A plant that accepts heavy metals from the soil. A plant that grows up to 15 ft. tall in one year.
A plant that has never killed a human.
Once my eyes were opened, they cannot be closed.

Anonymous said...

"all in the name of Jesus Christ."

-- so that group was pretty much "100% religion" ...and what was the turnout? 2,300?

-- RE cannabis, there is some irony in (significant) parts of the anti GMO crowd only OKing (and enjoying) the genetic modification of their fav plant

Anonymous said...

You mean there's heavy metals in that stuff??

Anonymous said...

aloha joan,
as usual, another fine post; mahalo.

the agro-industry types have long favored a 'chemical' approach to growing and harvesting of food. this approach has had devastating impact on the environment and is proving to be unsustainable.
the return to a more traditional and smaller scale food production seems appropriate. most often these smaller growers employ an 'organic' method of food production, relying less and less on 'chemicals'. as the # of small scale 'organic' farmers grow it also seems appropriate to disengage from the 'old school' power structure of the farm bureau guys and create associations and organizations that better reflect the values and practices of their food production system.

the GMO debate grows as industry folks sweeten the pot w/employment, community contributions, and heavy PR/lobbying efforts to sway public sentiments and elected officials to buy into the concept of 'more is better' while the 'organic' crowd defends the position that 'open lab' testing is a danger to their operations and the community at large.

the ag forum scheduled for the first weekend of april (4th&5th@Chiefess Kamakahele School)should be interesting if both sides of the issues are presented and discussed. i am glad the topic of organic farming and 'permaculture' are not so foreign as they used to be. the concepts of GMO is still foreign to some but as the debate and discussion moves forward hopefully people will come together and not push each other away. thnx for your post and your continued monitoring of the food/ag issues. hope your huli are happy and your garden green w/ abundance. dig it! peace,....jt