POSTED: 23 JUNE 2006 - 1:45am HST

Patents released on Sacred Hawaiian Taro plants

by Jeri Di Pietro on 21 June 2006

After 6 months of efforts in Hawaii the University of Hawaii finally dropped 3 patents on the Hawaiian taro, or Kalo, staple food and culturally sacred plant in Hawaii.

This was a huge step forward in the efforts to protect Hawaiian flora, fauna, land, and people from genetic modification and the patenting of life.

Walter Ritte from Molokai spearheaded this and we offer our deep gratitude and congratulations to Walter and the warriors in Molokai: all of their island-hopping, letters in the newspapers, risking of themselves by chaining doors, holding protests and directly confronting the University paid off. They truly set an example for indigenous peoples and those concerned with bioprospecting all over the world.

Chris Kobayashi, taro farmer from Hanalei, was an incredible presence in this efforts and served to put a face to the many farmers she represented.

Countless others help as well: Bill Freese and The Center for Food Safety, Mililani Trask and Hawaii SEED, not to mention the Center for Hawaiian studies at UH and many others. Thank you all for your continued support and efforts in this.

Media coverage was awesome. Here are just a few of the stories:

This article was on the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser 6/20/06:

This article was in Star Bulletin today 6/21/06:

This article was in Honolulu Advertiser Today 6/21/06:

This article was in The Molokai Island Times 6/20/06

These features were also on the TV all day yesterday and today:


These important points were made in several of the news releases. Note that UH official Ostrander actually admitted that UH has been leaving out Hawaiians and the public voice for 20-30 years! THIS isn't something we've heard too much of.

"The real test would be to see if the university administration, researchers and faculty would have been able to give up a patent that was going to make millions of dollars in the name of Hawaiian spirituality," said Manu Kaiama, director of the Native Hawaiian Leadership project.

"We're trying to reverse what I think has been a trend over the last 20-30 years, to move in a different direction," Ostrander said. "And the chancellor and the vice president here are optimistic that we've made a start."

This battle over taro is just the beginning. Hawaiian advocates plan on fighting for a list of issues related to UH. (Quoted from Star Bulletin)

What can you do?

Well, writing letters with your opinions about this to the newspapers would be great to keep the media going.

Here are two articles that you could send some corrections or comments to:
This "opinion" piece in the Honolulu Advertiser asks if it was the best thing or not to drop the patents.

If you could write a response to the Advertser it would be great: Click here.

Then there is this one that talks about disease being a big threat to taro. We all know a bigger threat is diversion of water (due to development), high land taxes and a lack of farmers. One of the cards UH has been using is that taro farmers really need the GMO taro, although most of the farmers have been resistant. This is a good opportunity to talk about the bigger agricultural and cultural issues that really surround the lack of poi and kalo in Hawaii and the fact that most farmers don't want their culture and markets threatened with GE taro. Here's a link.

by Sara Sullivan for Hawaii SEED
Next, we will stop all genetic modification on taro. Though UH agreed to stop GE on the Hawaiian varieties, they still continue to manipulate the Chinese Bunlong variety of taro which could lead to economic devastation of the taro market and massive contamination, not to mention all of our other concerns.

Please keep your eyes peeled for more news around this issue, and pass this great victory on to anyone who may be interested.

As Senator Clayton Hee said yesterday, not only does this send precedent for all native peoples in the Pacific, but it truly sets an example for indigenous people world wide.



POSTED 3 JUNE 2006 - 9:00pm HST

UH will assign taro patents to Hawaiians

Painting 'The Planter" by Herb Kawainui Kane. Click on image to see more.

UH will assign taro patents to Native Hawaiian community
by Gary Ostrander on 2 June 2006 on UH News

The University of Hawai‘i at Manoa announced today that it would assign three patents related to development of disease resistant taros to the greater Native Hawaiian community.

The patents in question arose from work conducted by a UH faculty member in the 1990s, at the request of Samoan taro growers, to address the near eradication of their taro crops to a leaf blight. The researcher developed a number of cultivars from crosses of Hawaiian and Palauan taro strains. The latter were obtained specifically for this purpose with the consent (including proper permitting) of Palauan taro growers and Palauan government officials.

Using traditional breeding techniques, the UH researcher produced three strains that were shown to have increased disease resistance. The patents were granted in 2002.

“The University of Hawai‘i has a strong desire to maintain appropriate respect and sensitivity to the indigenous Hawaiian host culture,” said UH Manoa Vice Chancellor for Research Gary K. Ostrander. “Taro is unique to the Hawaiian people in that it represents the embodiment of their sacred ancestor. As such, it is appropriate to make an exception to our standard policy of holding all patents.”

Discussions are under way within the Hawaiian community on the appropriate entity to receive the patents.

Gary Ostrander
Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education
University of Hawaii at Manoa
phone:(808) 956-7837




POSTED: 19 MAY 2006 - 9:00am HST

Taro Patent stirs protest at UH

taro plant cultures in genetic laboratory

Protestors Chain Doors To UH Medical School
18 May 2006 on

Hawaiian activists locked the front and back entrances to the University of Hawaii's medical school on Thursday in protest to the school's patents on taro.
The UH Board of Regents was set to meet at the building about other topics.

The University's College of Tropical Agriculture was granted patents for taro in 2002. Hawaiian groups said the university did not invent taro and therefore has no right to own or license it.

Activist Walter Ritte led the group. Taro is owned collectively by Hawaiians and therefore UH should return the three varieties to the public domain, according to Ritte.

"We are saying you cannot own our taro. You cannot own our taro. It's so simple," Ritte said.

University researchers created the new taro and UH said under its contracts with professors it needs to protect their intellectual property. The new taro is not genetically modified, but created by traditional cross-breeding, officials said.

UH officials said the new taro is given to farmers for free but under the licensing agreement if a farmer makes a profit on the taro, the university gets to keep 2 percent.

The group unlocked the chains to the entrances at 9:30am. after regents agreed to meet with the group at a later time to discuss the taro issue.

The protest did not affect classes. Students and faculty were able to enter through other locations.



POSTED: 14 JANUARY 2006 - 9:00am HST

GMO Free Hawaii hold press conferences

The largest taro fields in Hanapepe Valley, on Kauai, are a stone's throw from GMO corn fields

This is a report from a second press conference held by GMO Free Hawai`i at the Taro patch at UH Manoa, today. January 13, 2006. Speakers were native Hawaiian advocate, Walter Ritte of Molokai and Bill Freese from the Center for Food Safety (and Friends of the Earth).The university owns the rights to three varieties of the traditional staple taro. - Jeri Di Petro

Activists oppose UH's patenting of taro plants
by Stewart Yerton on 13 January 2006 in The Honolulu Star Bulletin

Arguing that the patents were wrongly obtained, local and national activists opposing the patenting of taro plants are asking the University of Hawaii to relinquish the rights it owns for three varieties of the traditional Hawaiian food staple.

Walter Ritte, a Molokai-based activist, plans to join Kauai taro farmer Chris Kobayashi and representatives of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., for a news conference at UH to air their grievances concerning the university's patenting of the three taro varieties, which are called Palehua, Paakala and Pauakea.

Issued in 2002, the patents protect the university's ownership rights of the varieties, which were developed by scientists at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. The patent requires farmers wanting to grow the varieties to pay a licensing fee to the university, prohibits farmers from selling the seeds and requires farmers growing the plants to let UH officials onto the farmers' property to study the plants.

But the critics contend that the university should not exercise intellectual property rights on plants that are derived from species that Polynesians brought to Hawaii more than 1,000 years ago. In traditional Hawaiian culture, the taro plant is viewed as a spiritual ancestor, a crop that sustained the people who cultivated and cared for it. Given this context, Ritte said, any kind of genetic alteration, experimentation or patenting of Hawaiian taro is offensive.

"The taro is not a commodity; the taro is our very person," Ritte said. "It's almost like they're buying and selling us."

But these cultural issues are not the crux of the argument made by Ritte and Kobayashi. Instead, the opponents argue the patents should not have been issued under U.S. patent law.

For example, the opponents assert in a statement that the UH patents should be invalid because the plants are not much different from varieties already invented by Hawaiians. Such previous inventions are called prior art in legal parlance, and the existence of prior art similar to the invention can make it impossible for an inventor to obtain a patent.

Of particular importance to the argument is a variety called Maui Lehua, which was used to cultivate UH's patented hybrid taro plants.

"The qualities of the patented varieties derive to a considerable extent from Maui Lehua, whose properties are the result of many centuries of breeding efforts by native Hawaiians," the opponents contend. "Thus, the patent claims for the three patented varieties are invalidated by considerations of prior art."

The statement also claims that the UH scientists failed to validate properties they claimed the taro contained, another essential element to obtaining a patent.
Finally, the statement takes issue with the several aspects of the licensing agreement, including royalties that farmers selling the taro would have to pay to UH.

"The collection of royalties from farmers whose taxes already support the university's operations, including taro breeding activities, is abhorrent," the statement said. "It represents a superfluous and unjust levy on Hawaiian taro farmers."

Although the patents have existed for years, they came to the attention of the activists only recently, said Bill Freese, a scientific consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety, which opposes the genetic alteration of food crops.

"It's a sign of how these things often take place without public awareness, and I think that once people know that with a plant like the sacred taro plant -- that the University of Hawaii is claiming to own these varieties -- I don't think people will be happy about it," Freese said.

Andy Hashimoto, dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, was not available for comment yesterday. Anya Wieczorek, a biotechnology specialist for CTAHR, said that under university policies, the patents belonged to the scientists and the university's Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development, and that the college would not have the power to relinquish them. Officials of the technology transfer office were not available for comment.

Last year, Wieczorek said, the university said it would not conduct genetic engineering research on Hawaiian taro until it could set up a process for obtaining guidance from a native Hawaiian advisory committee. No university scientist has expressed a desire to conduct such work, she said, so there has been no need to establish the advisory group.

GMO tomato graphics provided by GreenPeace Denmark

This article is a result of our GMO Free Hawai`i press conference that was held outside the Pacific Rim Biotech Conference at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu on January 12, 2006. - Jeri Di Petro

Quietly, Hawaii serves as world's biotech lab
by Paul Eliua on 12 January 2006 for the Associated Press

LAIE, Hawaii - Genetic engineering saved Ken Kamiya's papaya farm on Oahu's north shore, and it may yet rescue the orchid from the grips of a nasty flower-killing virus.
But in Kona, Una Greenaway lives in dread that biotechnology will ruin her organic coffee plantation. Pineapple industry officials have made it clear they want nothing to do with genetic engineering.

So it goes in the Aloha State, where genetic engineering has riven a state just now awakening to the fact that balmy and remote Hawaii has - for better and worse - long served as the world's largest outdoor biotechnology lab.

Since scientists first planted the spectacular commercial flop that was the Flavr Savr tomato on a small plot here in 1988, federal regulators have approved more than 10,600 applications to grow experimental biotech crops on 49,300 separate fields throughout the United States. More of these are in Hawaii than any other state.

Through the powers of biotechnology, low-nicotine tobacco, disease-resistant cotton and soy immune to weed killer are grown here. Hawaii's genetically engineered corn projects outnumber even those grown in Iowa and Illinois.

Biotechnology companies say the weather affords them a year-round growing season, while anti-industry activists say the five-hour plane ride from California gives the "gene jockeys" remoteness from prying eyes.

Whatever the reason, farmers such as Kamiya are satisfied with genetic engineering's effects on Hawaii.

Kamiya has grown papayas, Hawaii's best selling fruit behind pineapple, since he got back from serving in the Vietnam War in 1969. He lived through three crop-killing epidemics and the vagaries of farming, but by the early 1990s his farm, along with the entire Hawaiian papaya industry, was finally on the brink of destruction. They were at the mercy of a cureless virus.

Scientist Dennis Gonsalves, a native Hawaiian then at Cornell University, developed the clever idea to genetically splice a harmless piece of the virus into papaya trees - essentially vaccinating them in much the same way people fight the flu.

The gambit worked, and today, the virus is a mere nuisance for the $16 million industry - even for the 50 percent of papayas grown conventionally and without virus protection in Hawaii. That's because the virus has fewer places to roost now.

"Gonsalves saved our butts," Kamiya said as he wandered among the mini-palm trees bearing ripe yellow fruit on the 15-acre farm he leases from Brigham Young University, which maintains a campus in Laie some 40 miles north of Honolulu.

The day before, Kamiya spent five hours in Honolulu at a meeting helping to defeat a proposed measure from qualifying for the ballot that would have banned genetic engineering on Oahu island and effectively put him out of business.

But that's precisely what Hawaiian organic coffee growers like Greenaway and others want. They're shocked Hawaii has become biotechnology's chief laboratory and are concerned about their economic future.

Greenaway worries that the creeping march of biotechnology in Hawaii will soon spell her financial ruin if consumers fear famed Kona coffee was somehow tainted by biotechnology.

Researchers in the state are attempting to genetically engineer coffee plants to grow decaffeinated beans, which don't occur naturally. The researchers haven't yet grown their experimental coffee plants outdoors, even though federal regulators gave permission in 1999.

Still, Greenaway is haunted by the prospect that the work will move outdoors, then mix with her crop and dilute her coffee's punch. She worries no caffeine junkie paying $20 a pound for Kona coffee wants that.

"Genetic engineered coffee would be an economic disaster in Kona," Greenaway said.
In many ways, the biotechnology debate in Hawaii is a microcosm of the global debate over biotechnology.

There hasn't been a single allergic reaction or other health problem credibly connected to consuming biotech food. Still, many scientists do worry about the threats biotechnology poses to the environment, mainly through inadvertent cross-pollination with conventionally grown crops. That poses a particular problem for organic farmers who charge a premium to guarantee customers their groceries are free of genetic engineering.

The industry and its supporters proudly point out that biotechnology is actually helping small farmers by reducing pesticide use. Close to 8 million subsistence farmers throughout the developing world are growing genetically engineered soy and corn that require less toxic weed killer and bug spray, making farming better for the environment and for those toiling in the fields.

Yet, growing numbers of consumers and activists fret that the major biotechnology companies - specifically the titan Monsanto Inc. of St. Louis - are asserting a Microsoft-like grip on the world's food supply that will ultimately kill organic and family farms.

In Hawaii alone, several anti-biotech measures have been introduced recently in the Legislature mimicking laws in four California counties banning biotech, though none have passed here so far. A federal lawsuit filed last year effectively halted all experiments in Hawaii that involve splicing human genes into plants to produce medicine.

That kind of skittishness resonates with large food producers, which in the past have succumbed to consumers' skepticism about biotech food.

In 2000, McDonald's Corp. successfully cowed potato farmers to reject genetically engineered potatoes. Two years ago, bread makers forced Monsanto to abandon its plans to market genetically engineered wheat. And recently, pineapple industry representatives wrote the University of Hawaii that the industry doesn't want or need biotechnology.

But Steve Ferreira, a University of Hawaii researcher working on genetically engineered papaya, thinks those growers' sentiments would change if they were facing the decimation of their crops.

"Their need is not as urgent as it was with the papaya farmers," Ferreira said.

see also
Island Breath: GMO crops & superweeds
Island Breath: BioPharming Lawsuit
Island Breath: GMO Algae in Hawaii
Island Breath: China & Kraft GMO
Island Breath: GMO Free Kauai
Island Breath: GMO free Molokai
Island Breath: Mendocino GMO ban
Island Breath: GMO Experiments

Island Breath: GMO Rice

Island Breath: GMO in Hawaii

Island Breath: The Future of Food
Island Braeth: Percey Schmeizer