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University of Hawai'i officials and Native Hawaiian representatives will
meet at a UH taro patch Tuesday to discuss the future of controversial
research into genetically altered taro, May 2005 by Sean Hao.
However, UH said yesterday that it will not agree to any moratorium on
research on creating a hardier taro ? the key ingredient in poi, which is a
staple in Hawaiian culture. At the same time the university said it won't
re-initiate genetic research on native varieties of taro until the formation
of a forum/ research review board this summer aimed at gathering industry
and public sentiment on the matter.
Research into genetically modified taro ? or kalo in the Hawaiian language ?
has been conducted in a laboratory setting for about three years. That
research initially involved work on the Maui Lehua variety of taro, but now
is limited to the Chinese Bun Long taro, said C.Y. Hu, associate dean and
associate director for research at the UH College of Tropical Agriculture
and Human Resources UH has no plans to to proceed with genetic research on
local taro, but won't rule out the possibility.
"We're not going to support a moratorium, but we do need to take into
consideration their feelings," Hu said. "So we are proposing to form a
"We did some work (on Hawaiian taro), but we stopped because it was
Genetic crop research has increasingly become a controversial topic. Since
1995 UH also has conducted research on genetically modified pineapples
intended to be resistant to nematodes and mealybugs while flowering
However, research into taro has touched a nerve among some as being
disrespectful to Native Hawaiian culture.
The debate about taro research occurs at a time when taro for poi production
ran 24 percent below five-year averages through the first quarter, according
to the Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service. Production during the first
quarter was 7 percent below the year-ago period, mainly because of
unfavorable weather. However growers also periodically face lower yields
caused by fungal diseases and apple snails.
The university's current taro project involves inserting genes from
grapevine and wheat into Chinese taro to improve fungal disease resistance.
Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Kane'ohe, Kahuku), said the university has
legitimate reasons to pursue such research, but also needs to be sensitive
to public concerns.
"The university wants the research and academic freedom to pursue science
and that is one of the reasons for the university," said Hee, chairman of
the Higher Education Committee. "The staple of Hawai'i is poi and we go
through these stages in the year (when there are poi shortages). In fact,
we're in one now (because of demand from graduation parties)."
As the university proceeds with research, it needs to collect community
input through groups such as the proposed forum on genetic taro research,
"To me it's a real victory for both the university ... and the community,"
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