House committee hears hundreds and does nothing.

Photo and Story By Brandon Roberts

The future of taro has been deferred indefinitely. The Hawaiian House of Representatives’ Committee on Agriculture deferred a bill that would put a 10-year freeze on the genetic modification (GMO) of taro.

One of the bill’s introducers, Sen. J. Kalani English, was disappointed with the committee’s action. He said that bills are usually deferred with a date and time for the next hearing.

“This doesn’t bode well,” he said. “Theoretically, they could never come back to it.” The senator added that he will continue to put pressure on the House to approve SB 958.

“It is disturbing that the biotech industry won’t give,” he said. “Why should the Hawaiian’s give then?”

The March 19 deferment came after a seven-hour hearing that included testimony from roughly 130 attendees.

Hector Valenzuela is a professor at the University of Hawaii, but he represented himself to address the committee. Valenzuela testified that there is no research to back up bill opponent’s claim that GMO is safe for human consumption, or that GMO taro is the best management practice.

“Not that they care about taro, just the legislation,” Valenzuela said of the biotech industry. “They don’t want to make noise or gain attention.”

With the Dept. of Tropical Plants and Soil Sciences, Valenzuela said UH is the main research agency in Hawaii and they have not seriously looked at alternatives to GMO taro.

“When we rely on only one medicine, problems arise,” Valenzuela said. “It must be an integrated approach to sustainability.”

Valenzuela questioned whether the millions of dollars that have been spent on GMO research at UH could have been spent on more applied research to help farmers deal with many of their day-to-day problems.

The Taro Growers Association pushed to kill the bill, and companies like Monsanto say they have no intention of manipulating the DNA of taro.

“Why not support the moratorium then?” said GMO opponent, Walter Ritte. “Their decisions are based on the ability to make a profit, and little to do with serving the public good.”

Sen. English said the bill had not received support from the biotech industry because they fear it could set a legal precedent.

“I am disappointed the government is paying attention to big companies and not the public,” Valenzuela said of the committee’s decision.


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