POSTED: 20 MARCH 2008 - 7:30pm HST

Is the Enemy of Taro Really Disease?
Or Is It Us?

image above: Jerry Konanui, noted kalo farmer, amongst giant taro plants

by David Makana Martin on 19 March 2008

I am David Makana Martin and live in Kapaa, Kauai. I testify in support of SB 958 implementing a 10 year moratorium on genetic engineering research on taro. I originally wrote the testimony I am submitting in response to the Guest Viewpoint article by Adolph Helm in the March 17 Garden Island newspaper, titled “Taro: The enemy is disease not genetic engineering”. I’m pretty sure you’ll be receiving Mr. Helms testimony, which continues down a path of linguistic warfare, in this case over how we care for the 'aina (land) and our mea 'ai (food). He declares the enemy to be disease. Does the enemy always have to be this or that? I don’t see this approach getting us where we need to go, which as I see it, is more about food purity, food security, liability, accountability and our local safe food production capacity.

I’m a pretty simple non-Hawaiian, non-local, Kauaian taro farmer. I’m still struggling to make sense of NKP numbers (or is it NPK?) on fertilizer bags but since my first steps into taro patches in the mid- 1980’s and having worked to restore, build, plant and/or help care for kalo loi since that time, I have learned a thing or two about taro. One of the first things I learned is that taro is a very hearty plant- it had to be to survive my fumbling and f… ups and to keep growing. Everyday I see examples of why Polynesians carried this plant across the oceans, so it’s pretty hard for me to understand why some of us are so afraid some stray viruses are going to wipe out the entire taro industry, that we need to be saved in advance and even before we implement any low tech efforts to diversify monocrop plantings and implement effective import controls in our harbors.

My understanding of the major disease “wipeouts” of taro is that they have occurred when commercial monocrop growers were growing basically one or two related taro varieties and, being so far out of genetic balance, they pretty much all took a big hit. I’ve heard from reliable sources that these wipe outs, while pretty disastrous to commercial growers were not close to total crop loss, so I’m much more interested to know things like which varieties survived at what rates, how might these cultivars be effectively integrated to diversify commercial plantings on the affected farms, how far and fast did the disease travel and what quarantine practices were implemented and found to be effective or ineffective? In many cases, growers and millers practices to maximize their perceived economic return are as much or more of the problem than the disease itself. So what’s the whole story there? What should it be here?

By here I mean Kauai. I know this is a nationwide/statewide issue but this is all I’m willing to commit to as my area of kuleana (responsibility) for now. You can pick your own. It’s free! Each island is unique and very worthy of our direct attention and our gifts of malama. In any event, genetic engineering is not the one swipe, fix all solution for all of our taro disease problems, so why is it that’s what we’re talking so much about?

One of the very unique qualities of taro that I’ve heard touted since my first days in a taro patch is that it is hypoallergenic (does not cause any type of allergic reaction in the human body). The older taro farmers in Kahakuloa and Honokahau Maui and the north shore and windward side of Oahu talked about this in their meetings and as we worked their loi. Stories of sick babies (many non-Hawaiian) restored to health and vitality, stories of sick Tutu’s and deathly ill pregnant women renewed by this mysterious substance called poi. To this wide-eyed haole farmboy/man, taro was something I really wanted to learn how to grow.

It wasn’t just the stories- it was and continues to be my own experience. The first time I got past the tourist’s luau day experience of poi as fake chocolate pudding paste and I actually tasted its subtle sweetness and felt it as it moved down the back of my throat soothing and relaxing everything that it touched, I knew from deep inside me the stories were true. Later my exposure to the talks and writings of Dr. Terry Shintani and nutritionist Claire Hughes piled on a lot more facts and figures about the benefits of eating taro. By then they were preaching to the choir and I was paying attention. I was clearing taro patches with my sons, planting taro and loving it.

The details aren’t as important as understanding and acting upon the understanding that taro is hypoallergenic and therefore a food of last resort. If you can’t eat anything else you can survive and probably thrive on taro in some basically pure unadulterated form.

Here’s a true story about Mikey. His Mom has given me her permission to share it publicly and for purposes of testimony to the legislature. Mikey so happens to be part Hawaiian and other races as well. He is diagnosed as autistic and he really struggles to achieve what most kids and their families take for granted. One of the more common challenges for autistic children is their susceptibility to food allergies and, in fact, some researchers assert that allergies may be a primary factor in the occurrence of autism.

When I first started working with Mikey in 2002 he was, I believe, 7 years old and he appeared weak and undernourished. His weight was in the high 40s or low 50lbs. His muscle tone was flaccid and his skin color was kind of a pasty grayish brown. Mom was very worried about his low weight and her inability to get him on a diet where he would gain weight. She (a nurse) called it “a failure to thrive” as in a medical diagnosis. Each time he got sick, which seemed to be pretty often, he would lose weight and Mom would struggle to get his weight back to where it was before. Since I’d heard and believed the stories about the benefits of poi and since I happened to be growing taro, it didn’t take too much convincing for Mom to try changing Mikey’s diet. (I find this an interesting and fairly common example of the cultural conundrum we experience here in these islands- the non-Hawaiian cultural practitioner encouraging/supporting the use of cultural foods and/or practices.) She’s still making Mikey’s poi to this day- through a heavy duty juicer.

Mom did bite off a pretty big challenge here. Cleaning, pealing, scraping, boiling, grinding, packaging and storing 25-30 pounds of poi a week is no small task. It’s really quite a commitment to “do whatever it takes.” Her commitment to taking those first steps was quickly rewarded as Mikey responded to the change in diet almost overnight- gaining pounds in the first week and his weight continued to increase almost every week thereafter. Illnesses decreased dramatically both in numbers of occurrences and in severity- no more major weight recovery projects.

Mikey has become something of a poster boy for poi at the Pono Clinic, a clinic that serves children with eating disorders at Kapiolani Childrens’ Hospital on Oahu. When he goes in for checkups now, the doctors and nurses parade him around like Superboy through a waiting room full of sickly, emaciated children, touting the benefits of poi and its potential to help others in crisis. No real miracles, but it does take work.

Please get this- taro is a food of last resort! What other foods with this hypoallergenic quality do we have at our fingertips? Who is to be trusted with the care and protection of this important food? The current experiments with GMO taro at the University of Hawaii were hidden at first. The existence of GMO taro was denied, then they were “discovered” and acknowledged with solemn faced assurances that this project should not have happened the way that it did. The experiments involved introducing rice (and other) genes into bun long or Chinese taro. Allergies to rice, rice milk and other rice products are not at all uncommon. Could this experimentation result in contamination of Hawaiian varieties? What about the potential for allergic reactions among the sick or those with immune system deficiencies? No one is handing out guarantees or warranties here but we are now being assured all the plantlets will be destroyed “when the project is completed.”

So far, we’re not talking much about clear headed scientific protocols, rigorous rules or security of planting materials. If Mr. Helms believes there is some likelihood that we will invaded by diseases through taro imported from other countries, he might support development and enforcement of import restrictions, especially from areas known to have disease issues. This is possibly not in his job description but I’d bet DOW Agro-Science must have some sort of “catch all” everything else phrase in there somewhere. We already know how good they are at patent law.

I don’t know myself yet but I hope to find out what crops the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association are working on improving and how they intend to do so. Mr. Helms’ management role with DOW Agro-Science on Molokai tells me he’s probably a really smart guy with lots of education and training. It doesn’t tell me anything really relevant about his connection to the deep cultural practices and core values of Hawaii Nei. He has offered no assurances, guarantees or warranties that a primary Hawaiian cultural food and a food of last resort for many others will not be contaminated in the process. Mr. Helms argues for open season for agribusiness and university research, asserting a moratorium on experimenting on GMO taro would represent “anti-science public policy and erode the image of Hawai‘i as being a state that embraces excellence in the area of innovative science and technology.” Sounds like for him “embracing excellence” means “Let em in and let em do what they like!”- quite a departure from most Hawaiians I’ve known. So what does he mean when he says outside influences “…hijacking Hawai‘i’s indigenous and cultural issues to promote their own ideological and political agenda is not pono”? Where does Mr. Helms’ paycheck come from? Who is hijacking what where?

I’m hearing nothing about well established scientific principles such as the “precautionary principle”- basically if you don’t know or can’t derive with a high level of scientific certainty that it’s safe to do your experiment you just don’t do it. Self-restraint is considered a high virtue in many cultures but I’ve seen it can be quite a challenge for scientists and corporatists. I guess if some contamination or other accident does happen, Mr. Helms or the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association or Dow Agro-Science or possibly all three will have more projects to work on, but I sure hope not.

To me, the real problem is that no one really wants to be accountable- they just want to do it! This is not fertile ground for trust between many farmers (traditional or commercial), consumers and the guys and girls of science. The bottom line is that it will be kids like Mikey, maybe younger or maybe much older, that will end up bearing the costs if our corporatists or scientists suddenly say “Oops!” To me that’s pretty perverse if you are really serious about protecting the public trust or the Hawaiian public trust or any other level of common good. Somewhere along the line aren’t we going to have to outgrow our behavior of telling those affected by our corporate or governmental goof ups “I guess you’re just going to have to deal with it!” I really think that time has come!

I was more than a wee bit stunned at Mr. Helms’ characterization of the cause for taros’ decline in varieties from over 300 at the time of Western contact to today’s approximately 64 varieties as “viruses and effects of environmental changes…” I guess I really missed the story on those “viruses” so I’m a real newcomer to this concept. The way I got the story was the ships brought the invasive species (people, rats, etc.) to Hawaii and their diseases (viruses, VD, etc.) kicked in. The Hawaiian work force dropped like flies, the traditional family structure fell apart and many of the taro patches and taro varieties fell out of use. Some years later, more immigrants and often times, sons of earlier immigrants decided there was big money to be made in sugar. Sugar needs lots of water. I’ve personally heard stories from more than a few Hawaiian taro farmers on all Hawaiian islands (except Lanai and Niihau) whose ancestors woke up one day and the water in the stream and the taro patch was gone. So then more taro patches and more taro varieties fell out of use. Is that what Mr. Helms means by “environmental change?” I guess the environment really did change but as I got it, it was much more about the behavior of men rather than nature.

Maybe Mr. Helms is suggesting we should add taro varieties to the line-up with rice genes, wheat, barley, and/or corn genes and maybe sprinkle in some mango, grapevine pomegranate and fish genes as they are all real good for most of us. I’m sure we could pile on a lot more varieties and call it diversification but will we still have a food of last resort- hypoallergenic, pure and uncontaminated? Although I don’t really believe Frankenstein is going to jump out of the barrel here, I am still a real skeptic. I’m willing to listen to reason and I will broadly consider applicable scientific principles but we need to keep the burden of proof and the accountability where it belongs- with the scientists, or the corporatists or on all of us- if that’s what is prudent for us to agree upon as a community- but, as I see it, we have a very long way to go before we get there. As it is now, the shit still flows downhill.

Does anyone one know what the BOP is? It’s the “Bottom of the Pryamid” and I’m sure you’ll be hearing from a few more of them on this issue. I’m told by one of my teachers that’s where a lot of the “Cultural Creatives” live, so do be careful if you go there. Someone might hug you. Seriously though, even before we get to all of the questions I’ve raised above, shouldn’t we first have to deeply consider the question of whether or not this kind of research is wanted or needed by taro farmers at the BOP? I’ve been working around taro for a long while now and I still haven’t heard that drum beating loudly for this technology anywhere except in academia and from corporate brain trusts. (Is that an oxymoron?)

So these are some of the reasons why I support a 10 year moratorium on genetic engineering research of taro. I am somewhat limited here by space and by time. Perhaps I’ve already said too much for some but please try to think about all that I’ve said. The requested moratorium is clearly not forever and includes, with the rest of the taro legislative package, a decent set of recommendations and programmatic support for much of what needs to be done during that time. As responsible, public minded legislators can you truly be comfortable about trading off support for work that really needs to be done for all taro farmers and taro consumers- for no moratorium on genetic engineering research on taro? That, to me, is just not enough. I really do expect more from our public servants on all islands.

There’s a lot to figure out here. We’re trying to cross Western corporate values and crop science technologies with Hawaiian cultural practices, a food of last resort and at the same time we’re circling around the subjects of the acknowledged illegal overthrow of a nation state, genocide and the like. (see Apology Resolution, Pub. L. No 103-150, 107 Stat. 1510 and more recently the Hawaii Supreme Court opinion #25570 in OHA, et al vs HCDCH, et al CIV NO 94-4207 for more legal and historical details.)

Science, economics and politics make for a very busy playground and we don’t seem to know for sure whose playground we’re actually in. It’s probably going to take a committee or two to figure out when to blow the whistle on whom for what reason and what to do about it. Who’s going to step up to the plate and take on the accountability questions? At the federal level it seems we’re intent on lifting telecom companies, drug manufacturers, mortgage banks and other special interest groups out of the messes they have created. Is that what we’ll be dealing with here too? Let’s get real already! As far as I know the taro security and purity research conversation is barely started- so how about a time out on this playground for now? Be brave- give it a real try. Please pass SB 958.


for more see:
Island Breath: Protect the Halao (Kalo, Taro) 3/6/08
Island Breath: Kalo - The staple Food
Island Breath: Taro reseach protested 8/15/07
Island Breath: The Kalo Crisis on Kauai 8/3/05
Island Breath: Backyard Taro Growing 5/24/05