Scientists and native Hawaiians want to save the sacred taro plant from an uncertain future, but strongly disagree on whether genetic modification is the answer.
Native Hawaiians believe the taro, which is used to make the starchy food poi and revered as an ancestor of the Hawaiian people, should not be tampered with. Taro, tall and broad-leafed, rises from paddy-like patches around the islands and the purplish poi, a glutinous substance avoided by some, is an essential ingredient at Hawaiian luaus.
Researchers say the only way to protect the taro plant from spreading modern plant diseases is to insert resistant genes from rice, wheat and grape crops, altering the basic structure of the plant.
State lawmakers have stalled a bill sought by many Hawaiians that would have placed a statewide moratorium on genetic modification of taro for 10 years.
"How bad do things have to get before those who are anti-genetic modification will admit that taro needs help?" asked Susan Miyasaka, a researcher at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, who has been testing Chinese taro breeds. "The taro farmers are having trouble making ends meet."
About 50 protesters who gathered at a rally at the state Capitol on Friday said they didn't want the so-called help that scientists say they can provide.
They question whether genetic modification will be any more effective than traditional crossbreeding techniques and worry that genetically modified crops could contaminate their Hawaiian taro breeds.
For some of the demonstrators, the issue about preserving the purity of the taro rather than the scientific merits of genetic modification.
"What we're really angry about is that the biotech industry has turned this into a genetic modification issue," Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte said. "This is about us protecting our family member."
As the Hawaiian legend has it, the cosmic first couple gave birth to a stillborn child, Haloa, from whose gnarled body sprang the broad-leafed plant whose roots are ground into poi. The Hawaiian people, it is believed, came from a second brother, making the plant part of their common ancestry.
Since ancient Hawaiian times, taro yields have dropped from 8,888kg per hectare to 4,444kh per hectare, Miyasaka said. Her research with preliminary tests has shown that her genetically modified Chinese taro is resistant to leaf blight and she hopes to begin greenhouse trials soon.
The University of Hawaii has agreed not to do research on Hawaiian taro and will be careful to prevent their experimental taro from breeding with native varieties, said Stephanie Whalen, director of the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center.
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