Hands Off Taro

GMO rally shakes up first day of Hawaii Legislature

Answering to the call of hundreds of demonstrators in support of a taro bill, House Speaker Calvin Say takes hold of the megaphone in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building last Wednesday. Holding the megaphone is Homestead farmer Walter Ritte, who said Say stalled the bill asking for a 10-year moratorium on the testing and creation of GMO taro during the 2007 session. Photo by Bruce Asato / Honolulu Advertiser

By Jennifer Smith and Leo Azambuja 

Hawaiian rights advocates banded together last week at the Capitol Rotunda to protect taro, a core staple of Hawaiian culture. The Hawaii Legislature kicked off the 2008 session with several hundred demonstrators rallying in support of a bill asking for a 10-year moratorium on genetically modified (GMO) taro.

Senate Bill 958 was first proposed last year. However, after passing through the Senate the bill was blocked in the House of Representatives by House Speaker Calvin Say and Agriculture Committee Chairman Representative Clift Tsuji. The Representatives said the bill was too complicated and controversial at the time, but would be revisited in the next session.

Holding the Representatives to their word, this year bill supporters stood outside the Capitol to ensure their voices were heard.

“Last year they treated us with no respect, they wouldn’t even give us a hearing,” Homestead farmer Walter Ritte said. “This year I’m almost positive we’re going to have a hearing.”

“Calvin Say and Clift Tsuji have the power to hear SB958. To not do so will be a direct insult to the Hawaiian people and taro farmers,” said Sarah Sullivan, Statewide Coordinator at Hawaii SEED, a non-profit organization that helps educate the public about possible GMO risks.

Two-time Vice-Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, along with other Native American leaders from the mainland were invited by Hawaii SEED to participate in the rally.

“I was very moved by the rally and the presence of the Hawaiians at the legislature,” LaDuke said. The well-known indigenous rights leader has been fighting her own battle with the legislature in Minnesota, trying to prevent the genetic engineering of wild rice, a staple of the Ojibwe tribe she comes from.

“The University of Minnesota, similar to the University of Hawaii, wants to have the ‘academic freedom’ to do this work, but does not take the academic responsibility for the contamination which will inevitably result,” LaDuke said.

Possible contamination of non-GMO crops topped the list of demonstrators’ concerns, as did cultural issues surrounding taro.

“The GMO taro bill is unique: This is a cultural issue, both for the farmers and the Hawaiians,” Sullivan said. “This is an entirely separate issue from other GMOs.”

Mentioning 2700 municipalities that have not accepted GMOs, LaDuke said, “We are sure this will increase when the health impacts become more recognized, as there are no long term studies.” 

Taro farmer and Molokai resident Herbert Hoe traveled to Oahu with the Hui Kalo group to join the rally. “I think we influenced the legislators to take a serious look at what we are saying,” he said.

Hoe and Ritte, along with hundreds of demonstrators, camped out for two nights on the lawn outside of the Hawaii Capitol.

“We had people marching on every level in the Capitol,” Ritte said. “We were presenting taro plants to all of the legislators. Each legislator got a taro plant.”

If the Agriculture Committee reviews and recommends SB958, the bill will go to the house for a floor vote. “We plan to fill the whole chamber with people when it comes up to a floor vote,” Ritte said.

“If the floor vote is positive, it goes to the governor for a signature and it becomes law,” Ritte said. “We are very close.”

Other opening day events for the Hawaii Legislature included a celebration honoring UH-Manoa’s Western Athletic Conference champion teams and a special performance from the University Lab School All-City Band. 

Agenda items for the 2008 Hawaii Legislature include environmental protection, healthcare access, sustainability, homeless services and public school repair and maintenance. The Legislature also opened with a newly organized bipartisan House ethics committee.


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