POSTED: 16 JULY 2008 - 6:30am EST

GE taro bill:
Legislators catered to big business

image above: Hector Valenzuela in the field. From his website

by Hector Valenzuela, Ph.D. U.H. on 16 July 2008

Now that the dust has started to settle after the end of another legislative session, the public can once again be reassured that our representatives have put aside the public interest in favor of directives given to them by big business and the large landowners in the state. Time and again, we saw a replay of the Super ferry, when
environmental regulations, and community concerns, were brushed aside to comply with the demands of big business.

A key bill that illustrates this point is SB-958, which called for a 10-year moratorium on research to genetic engineering (GE) of the taro plant in Hawaii. The GE of taro, in the laboratory, consists of inserting foreign, exotic genes, containing DNA from bacteria, viruses, antibiotics, or from other plants, into every cell of the taro plant.

Hawaiians were fervently opposed to this, as they consider taro to be a sacred plant and part of their genealogy. The goal of genetically engineering the taro plant could be seen as a follow-up to earlier attempts by UH to patent the taro plant, and, in 2003, to patent the genome of the Hawaiian people itself.

Adding to the cultural concerns, are the health and environmental risks of releasing an exotic GE taro in the islands. A problem with the open release of living forms, that have never before existed in nature, is that once the genie is taken out of the bottle, there is no bringing it back inside.

In addition, GE taro would contaminate non-GE plantings throughout the state.

Contamination has occurred in virtually all parts of the world where GE crops are grown. In Mexico, where corn is considered to be a sacred plant, native species in remote areas were contaminated by GE varieties from the U.S., despite the fact that GE corn is not approved for planting in that country. Contamination thus results in a loss of biodiversity of plants that are important to our culture.

In Hawaii, the extensive contamination of traditional varieties was found only a few years after UH released the UH Rainbow GE papaya. The GE companies, so far, have been unwilling to take responsibility for the contamination of traditional varieties throughout the world.

In support of the moratorium were a large group of native Hawaiian and civic organizations, the Associated Students of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Kamehameha Schools, the County Councils from the Big Island, Kauai, and Maui, many farmers, and all the kupuna and taro farmers from Waipio Valley, adding to over 7,000 letters for SB-958.

Despite this overwhelming public support for the moratorium, the legislature effectively killed the bill by inserting, apparently by request from the seed companies, a draconian preemptive clause that would have precluded the state or any county from EVER REGULATING GE CROPS IN THE STATE, including growing, labeling, or testing. This clause was highly undemocratic, as it would have prevented citizens from having a say in what goes on in their own communities. In other words their goal was to simply eliminate the principle of “home-rule” from the state’s democratic process.

In opposition to the original bill, the assigned spokesperson for the out-of-state companies was of Hawaiian ancestry, and an employee of Dow Chemical, the global chemical and seed company. Unlike supporters of the bill, who were cut short after only a few minutes of testimony, he was allowed ample time to talk about his family roots and about his company’s long-term commitment to the community. However, in his testimony the spokesperson for these chemical and seed companies didn’t mention what citizens in other parts of the world feel about his company’s commitment to community.

One such community would be Bhopal, in India, where a chemical explosion in 1984 left over 23,000 dead, over half a million affected, and today a third-generation of victims of chemical exposure. Community groups, almost a quarter century after the incident, are calling for a clean-up of the hundreds of tons of toxic waste that still remain on the site, and of the contaminated ground water supply. The New York Times earlier this month reported that no one has yet “bothered to address the concerns of those who have drunk that water and tended kitchen gardens on this soil and who now present a wide range of ailments.” The Indian Ministry of Law and Justice has found that Dow is legally liable for the incident in Bhopal. In addition, some of the company’s shareholders, including the New York City Pension Funds, are also requesting that the company address the issues that linger in Bhopal.

Meanwhile, in his company’s hometown of Midland, Michigan, according to an EPA memorandum, Dow “concealed data and studies” concerning contamination of the community with dioxin. As a result of their actions in Bhopal, and in their home-state of Michigan, the Student Assembly at the University of Michigan issued a resolution in support of University disassociation from the Dow Corporation and called for a cleanup of contaminated sites in Bhopal and Michigan.

Critics of GE consider that the planting of novel GE varieties carries unknown risks to the environment and human health. They point out that by planting exotic GE varieties, we could repeat the mistakes that were made in Hawaii’s plantations with the historical release of biological agents or chemicals which, years later, were found to cause considerable harm. As a result, a time-out for the community was proposed, to gather and discuss these issues, before proceeding to make
a mistake that can’t be undone.

Unfortunately, our legislators once again chose to side with the position of the big, out-of-state seed companies and university administrators, who see the state and its people as an ideal global center for the field planting and experimentation with novel GE varieties.

Hector Valenzuela is a Professor and Extension Specialist at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Contaxt him at -
mail: 3190 Maile Way No. 102, Honolulu, HI 96822
phone: 808.956.7903
fax: 808.956.3894
web: or

see also:
Island Breath: Kill the Taro Bill SB958 4/12/08
Island Breath: Save the Kalo - SB958 4/4/08
Island Breath: Is the enemy of taro desease 3/20/08
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