If you’ve tried taro chips, you know that the starchy taro root tastes — and chews — a lot like a potato. And if you’ve ever vacationed in Hawaii, there’s a good chance that someone convinced you to try poi, the fermented taro paste mixed with coconut milk and eaten at most luaus.
And that’s maybe all you know about taro.
But for native Hawaiians, the ability to grow, eat, and sell taro is about more than an export crop or a tourist trick; it’s key to preserving the ancient Hawaiian diet.
So when a bill aimed at preventing genetically modified (GM) taro from cross-pollinating with non-GM taro crops stalled in the Hawaii state legislature last month, 200 people showed up to protest, demanding that the bill be put to a vote.
“The incident exposed the raw emotion underlying the collision of technology and culture,” reported the Hawaii Tribune Herald. “Genetic engineering, promising a caffeine-free coffee plant, virus-resistant papaya, and any number of other designer crops, is taking off in Hawaii’s welcoming climate, fast becoming an economic engine to take the place of fading sugar and pineapple crops.”
As the once-dominant sugar and pinapple industries have begun to relocate to the developing world, biotech crops are taking their place. Taro is only one of a number of local Hawaiian crops at risk; Kona coffee is another.
Where does this leave the small farmer? For Jerry Konanui, a native Hawaiian taro farmer, it helped to hear from indigenous farmers from other parts of the world.
He attended the Indigenous People’s Conference on Bioengineering in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Konanui told the Big Island Weekly, “to educate myself . I rubbed elbows with indigenous Mexicans, Peruvians, and Indians ... about 30 different groups in all, and I was, like, really disturbed.”
So he went back to Hawaii and began educating people about the value of agricultural diversity (something big biotech discourages) and the need to make Hawaii more self-sufficient. After all, most of the plants grown in the islands for export — coffee, sugar, pineapple — are luxury goods, while basic foodstuffs such as fruit and vegetables have long been shipped in from places like California. (Some calculate that, in the event of a disaster, Hawaii would only have a 10-day food supply.)
If the cloud hovering over what some activists are calling the new “GMO ground zero” has any silver lining, it might be that it’s inspiring a more culturally and locally relevant agriculture. Hawaii, after all, is the Rainbow State.
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