Kalo Is More Than a Native Hawaiian Plant—It's an Ancestor to Hawaiian Culture

Rebecca Jacobs
11/21/11

Correction December 6, 2011: The story incorrectly stated the Taro Security and Purity Task Force was involved in the gmo taro issue. They were not in existence at the time and are mandated not to become involved.

To Native Hawaiians, kalo is supreme in importance—it is defined in the Kumulipo, or Hawaiian Creation Chant, as the plant from which Hawaiians were formed. When the first voyagers arrived on the shores of the Hawaiian Islands nearly 1,500 years ago, kalo (taro) was one of the few sacred plants they carried with them.

According to the Kumulipo, Papa (Earth Mother) and Wakea (Sky Father) gave birth to Ho’ohokukalani, who became the most beautiful woman of time. When she grew to adulthood, she became pregnant and gave birth to a child who was named Haloa-naka (ha = breath, loa = long, ka = quivering). Haloa-naka, stillborn, was placed in the Earth. From the ground in which Haloa-naka was buried grew, with a long stem and leaf that quivers in the wind. Kalo fed the second-born son, also named Haloa. It is from the second son that Hawaiians trace their lineage.

“From a Hawaiian perspective, any kalo is our ancestor,” Hokuao Pellegrino, Native Hawaiian taro farmer and cultural practitioner, says.

When Europeans arrived in Hawaii in 1778, Hawaiians had developed hundreds of types of kalo specific to the broad range of the Hawaiian isles’ climactic zones and growing conditions from the mountains to the sea, the desert to the tropics. It should be no surprise then, that when agricultural business and researchers began to manipulate, genetically modify and patent certain “super taro” varieties, Native Hawaiians and non-Natives alike were alarmed.

“We deserve respect,” Walter Ritte, Native Hawaiian activist of Molokai says. “This is not the wild, Wild West. This is Hawaii. There are things you can do, and things you cannot do. And we are here as Hawaiians to say that these are the things you cannot do.”

Mana ’ulu (breadfruit)

In 2002, the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (UH-CTAHR) patented three varieties of hybridized taro that were descendants of the Hawaiia­n-Polynesian taro group, lehua. Farmers who wanted to grow these patented varieties were required to sign a licensing agreement prohibiting them from selling or breeding the plant. If they intended to do so, they were required to pay royalties to the university.

The following year, University of Hawaii (UH) researchers and the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC) began genetically engineering three varieties of taro by splicing rice, wheat and grapevine genes into the taro plants. HARC then-president Stephanie Whalen said that the purpose for genetically altering and patenting the lehua taro was to make it more disease-resistant and productive.

Jerry Konanui, Native Hawaiian taro farmer and expert, says genetic modification of taro is unnecessary. He explains that the keys to taro crop management are diversification of cultivars, soil maintenance and farming of the appropriate plants for the purpose and growing conditions. “Our kapunas [elders] understood the need to grow varieties,” he says. “The Hawaiians knew which varieties to plant. They were so in tune with their environment that their varieties were adapted to various conditions. That’s how we survive.”

Konanui explains that 90 percent of the taro now produced is of only one variety, Maui lehua. As commercial growers and researchers have transitioned taro from sacred and widely cultivated to a commodity mono-crop grown in non-traditional methods, he says, the taro has been called weak and vulnerable. “That’s why I get mad when they say the taro is no good. It’s not the taro’s fault. It’s the hands.… It’s the hard work you put into it,” he says. When mono-cropping is practiced and crop rotation, intercropping, fallowing and composting is not implemented, he says, sickly plants should be expected.

“Yeah, they have a problem. Absolutely. When they plant only one taro—90 percent of the market is that one taro—you should expect that, yeah? That has never been our traditional method. We’ve gotta learn. Nature is telling us. Why? Because we are out of balance.”

In 2006, Konanui began to meet with traditional farmers from around the world, including Winona LaDuke, Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg, executive director of Honor the Earth and Native Harvest, and the founding director for the White Earth Land Recovery Project. He says that his eyes were opened to the lack of research on the effects of genetically engineered plant varieties, so he resolved to work as a taro advocate. Of the hundreds of taro cultivars developed by Hawaiians prior to European arrival, only 84 were documented in 1939 in Taro Varieties in Hawaii—the pamphlet that is the go-to reference on taro. Some believe that only two individuals on earth know each of these varieties—Konanui and Alton Arakaki, a UH-CTAHR county extension agent on the island of Molokai.

“I represent eight generations of [taro farming] knowledge. It was really frightening because I thought, I cannot be the missing link,” Konanui says.

Corn of Kalo Pi’i ali’i

Through e-mail blasts, blogs and farming networks across the world, the taro farmers and advocates with the support of Kahea generated a list of 7,000 individuals in opposition to taro patenting and genetic modification. Hundreds more, including LaDuke and farmers from New Mexico, went to the Hawaii legislature in Honolulu to ku‘e (stand up) for kalo.

According to Konanui and State Senator Maile Shimabukuro kalo is known as the most digestible, hypoallergenic food available to humans.
Due to the outcry against the manipulation of taro, UH dropped its taro patents.

According to the UH-CTAHR Research & Graduate Education website, in 2007, UH “filed terminal disclaimers with the U.S. Patent Office that [effectively] dissolve all university proprietary or ownership interests in three taro varieties created by UH research work.”
The university also agreed to stop genetic engineering experiments on the Hawaiian varieties of taro.

“The University of Hawaii has a strong desire to maintain appropriate respect and sensitivity to the indigenous Hawaiian host culture,” said UH Manoa Vice Chancellor for Research & Graduate Education 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.”

Also in 2007, Senate Concurrent Resolution 206 (Appendix A) passed into law the development of a Taro Security and Purity Research Program to address growing concerns about taro farming from taro farmers throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Due to the recommendation of taro farmers from throughout the islands, two key elements of this resolution were ensuring that: taro farmers were an integral part of the research program; and the broad range of issues effecting taro farmers excluding genetic modification be addressed. With the passage of this law, the significance of taro was finally recognized. At that point, Konanui says, the taro advocates changed their strategy.

“Now, we came with a strategy of articulating our aloha—the pleading from the hearts of the Hawaiian people,” Konanui says. “Those are the kind of principles our ancestors taught us.”

Konanui explained that this meant educating the public about the sacredness of taro in the Hawaiian culture. Rather than showing aggression and protesting the patenting or modification of taro, the taro advocates began to host demonstrations detailing ways to grow, harvest and prepare it. They gave the public a firsthand look and understanding of taro’s place in Hawaiian history and concept of being. With these acts of sharing and kindness, individuals, the university and the government began to comprehend the importance of taro purity and preservation.

In 2008, taro farmers with the support of the Department of Agriculture went to the Hawaii State Legislature and asked for the formation of a taro security and purity task force. The formal Taro Security and Purity Task Force was then established through the passage of Act 211. This legislation directed taro farmers, agencies and UH representatives to seek solutions to challenges facing taro, taro farmers and taro markets.

Because so many wide-ranging concerns about taro existed from growing to marketing, the act set up a process through which 19 Task Force members (one alternate) would convene meetings and gather input from taro growing communities throughout the islands. Unique to this Task Force was fact that 50 percent of all members be taro farmers. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs funded the legislation to be set into motion over the next 12 months.

From the meetings throughout the islands, the Task Force would draft a prioritized report of what the taro community was experiencing and what they desired to be published at the close of 2009.

Also in 2008, the state designated kalo as the state plant, and the Hawaii County Council voted 9–0 in favor of a bill to ban genetically modified taro and coffee on the island of Hawaii. Under the bill, it became illegal to “test, propagate, cultivate, raise, plant, grow, introduce or release genetically engineered taro and coffee” in the county.

In 2009, Maui County Council passed a similar bill prohibiting genetically modified taro on Maui, declaring that the cultural and spiritual significance of kalo to Native Hawaiians was more important than any other factor.

Funding from private donors will support the recovery of traditional Hawaiian taro cultivars throughout the state and expand existing taro identification and verification capability and outreach.

The private donors’ funding will also go for the DNA documentation of 100 varieties found in the state to verify the identity of Hawaiian, Pacific and Asian varieties; creation and maintenance of tissue cultures of the Hawaiian varieties; an apprenticeship program to increase the number of people able to identify the cultivars developed by Hawaiians; and the expansion of taro collections to increase availability of the Hawaiian varieties to growers.

For more information about kalo, its history and related projects, visit:
Kupunakalo.com; Hawaiiseed.org/issues/taro/gmo-taro-history; or Namaka.com.

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