Kalo should be protected from global agribusiness

Umi Perkins
The opening day of the Hawaii State Legislature marked the return of an issue that took center stage just two short years ago on the campus of the University of Hawaii: the patenting and experimental genetic modification of kalo, the Hawaiian taro plant.The genetic modification of kalo marks the intersection of the most traditional of Hawaiian practices with the untested practices of global agri-business. The first kalo, according to Hawaiian oral history, grew from Haloanaka, stillborn child of Papa and Wakea and ancestor of all Hawaiians. The second child was Haloa, who is an ancestor to humans. Within the Hawaiian cosmogony, kalo is the elder sibling of the Hawaiian people.

In the 21st century, the production of kalo is already under threat, without the new risks of genetic modification. Production of kalo in Hawai'i has dropped from 14 million pounds in 1948 to 4 million in 2005. Increasing production of kalo can reduce dependence on imported food, which constitutes 90% of Hawaii's food supply. Kalo would increase Hawaii's "food sovereignty," a term of art for the economic and cultural self-determination of a people.

The cultivation of kalo seems to have a therapeutic effect on people, particularly Hawaiians, as evidenced by Ka'ala Farms' culture and cultivation-based treatment program for the chemically-dependent. In the emerging system of Hawaiian-oriented schools, working in the lo'i (taro patch) is used as both punishment and reward, a fact which seems to underscore its therapeutic nature.

Some futurists warn of a potential condition involving deprivation of contact with the natural world as development, urbanization and the sedentary lives of children coalesce. All of these are reasons to return the production of kalo – organic kalo – to the center of Hawaii's economy.

Kalo is an issue that can actually unite rather than divide ethnic and other factions in Hawaii. On a plane from San Francisco I once met the Japanese daughter of the founder of Haleiwa Poi. Much of the kalo cultivated today is grown on farms owned by non-Hawaiians; similarly, much of the kalo consumed today is eaten by all of Hawaii's ethnic groups. I expect that our peoples want their poi made from real kalo, not a lab-developed variety, and they would support the continued cultivation of organic kalo.

Opposition to GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, is far from a lunatic-fringe position – the entire European Union is under fire from the central institution of globalization, the World Trade Organization, for its member countries' bans on various genetically modified foods. As far back as 2001, 14 Pacific Island nations as well as many Asian and African countries had bans or moratoriums on GMOs. Only in the US is such opposition seen as marginal.

There's hope. Lo'i kalo have been restored in many areas. Organic food is a fast-growing sector of the international marketplace as both producers and consumers find the costs manageable. But even the term "organic" is misleading. It makes one think this is food for hippies, or some exotic fare that would offend the meat-and-potatoes sensibilities of middle America. There was another name for organic food before the introduction of genetic modification: it was called food, the stuff humans have eaten for a couple million years. To create distrust of non-genetically modified food is a perversion of logic that can only happen in a media-hypnotized society.

The distortion knows no bounds; at one point, it was illegal to label organic foods not genetically modified as GM corn became virtually the only type available in the American market.

The genetic modification of kalo also presents intellectual property issues that, unfortunately, the laws are not satisfactorily designed to resolve. The question is often asked: "who owns kalo?" Hawaiians cultivated many varieties of kalo through traditional breeding practices, by some counts 300 varieties. Does this not mean that Hawaiians, in fact, "own" the practice of kalo cultivation? Intellectual property law does not recognize group but only individual rights of ownership, a bias that discriminates against collectivist societies and Indigenous peoples.

Surely we can agree on this: we all want our and our childrens' food to be uncontaminated with unproven "technologies" – we just want to eat our traditional foods in peace.