Hawaiians, farmers push for ban on GM taro (31/3/2007)

1.Hawaiians, farmers push for hearing over GMO taro bill
2.Monsanto Hawaii expanding

NOTE: A similar bill to the Taro one (item 1) banning field-testing of genetically engineered coffee is still pending. Last August, the USDA was severely croiticised by a federal judge in Hawaii for the way it had illegally approved trials of genetically engineered corn and sugar cane.

EXTRACT: 'It's absolutely scary for us because these chemical companies, Monsanto and Dow, are becoming the main farmers on our island,' said Walter Ritte, coordinator of Hui Ho'opakele Aina, a group opposed to genetically modified crops. 'We have no protection because the state and the feds are not regulating them to our satisfaction.' (ITEM 2)
1.Hawaiians, farmers push for hearing over GMO taro bill
By Mark Niesse
Associated Press, March 31 2007

Upset over the death of a bill that would ban genetic modification of taro, farmers and Native Hawaiians yesterday shouted down chief lawmakers in a noisy protest at the state Capitol.

Protesters wanted lawmakers to hold a hearing on a bill that would place a 10-year moratorium on genetic modification of the taro plant, which is used to make poi and considered an ancestor of the Hawaiian people.

About 50 protesters surrounded the offices of key lawmakers, chanted 'Hear the bill!' and waved signs with slogans like 'Leave our taro alone' and 'Just say no to GMO.'

'Taro is part of our genealogy. We respect it and don't want to alter the genes of our ancestor,' said Alapaki Luke, a taro farmer from Kahana Valley. 'The taro itself represents the environment. We don't want to alter our environment. We want to sustain it.'

Scientists at the University of Hawai'i fought the bill because they want freedom to genetically modify taro to protect it from diseases that could threaten to wipe out the Islands' crops.

Three leaders of the House of Representatives eventually answered the yells of the protesters and met with them in the Capitol Rotunda. The protesters demanded answers and pointed fingers, but the lawmakers' responses didn't appease them.

The taro protection bill passed through the state Senate, but Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Clifton Tsuji, D-3rd (Hilo, Kea'au, Mountain View), said he plans to defer the bill until next year.

'It's a complicated and controversial issue, and we need more time,' Tsuji said. 'Because of the importance of the issue, we can work on it and come back next year.'

Taro farmers worry that genetically modified breeds could escape the university environment and eventually overrun native varieties, said Trisha Kehaulani Watson, executive director for the Native Hawaiian group Kakoo Oiwi.

'Science can often get ahead of humanity, and when that occurs, it's difficult to undo the damage,' she said. 'We can't let economic needs outweigh our concern for humanity.'

But researchers say it could be disastrous if their studies were stopped and there was no way to fight diseases like taro leaf blight, which has wiped out entire crops on some Pacific islands, said Kevin Kelly, managing director for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research at the University of Hawai'i.

The genetically modified species of taro are Chinese - not Hawaiian - and they have only been tested in laboratories so far, he said.

'To stop research until there's a crisis isn't in anyone's best interest,' Kelly said. 'This is research to make the world a better place.'

Most of the debate involved whether it was more important to protect the cultural significance of the taro plant or to continue research.

Last year, UH relinquished three patents on taro breeds that had been crossbred for disease resistance after months of protests, including a demonstration in which farmers and students chained the entrance of a school building before a meeting of the Board of Regents.

'Leave our taro alone. We never asked them to do this for us,' said Jerry Konanui, a Big Island taro farmer.

House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Wilhelmina Rise), said the goal for lawmakers is to strengthen and expand the taro industry, but neither side can agree on the best way to do that.

The taro moratorium bill will be considered again next year, he said.
2.Biotech firm grows on Molokai
Environmentalists say they are worried about modified crops
By Nina Wu
Star Bulletin, March 24 2007

Monsanto Hawaii has expanded its presence through a long-term lease for three agricultural land parcels from Molokai Properties Ltd.

Agricultural expansion draws protest
Monsanto is expanding its presence on Molokai to 1,650 acres, in a move that means more jobs and seed crops for the island -- but also more opposition from environmentalists.

Molokai Properties Ltd., a subsidiary of Singapore-based BIL International Ltd., has granted Monsanto Hawaii a 99-year lease for the agricultural lands.

The company had already been leasing 700 acres; its new lease will result in 500 more acres under cultivation.

But environmentalists, who have challenged the cultivation of genetically modified crops on the lands, say the growing presence is alarming.

Monsanto, a global company specializing in biotech corn seed crops, has entered a 99-year lease for 1,650 acres of land, of which about 1,200 are suitable for farming.

The company had already been leasing 700 acres, and will increase the total under cultivation by 500 acres.

While the expansion means more productivity for Monsanto, as well as more jobs for the island economy, environmental activists -- which include the Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and Hui Ho'opakele Aina -- continue to cry out against the growing presence of genetically modified crops on Molokai. They say the modified crops have not been adequately tested for long-term effects and could cross-pollinate with organic crops.

'It's absolutely scary for us because these chemical companies, Monsanto and Dow, are becoming the main farmers on our island,' said Walter Ritte, coordinator of Hui Ho'opakele Aina, a group opposed to genetically modified crops. 'We have no protection because the state and the feds are not regulating them to our satisfaction. The fields are right next to our town -- east of the town and west of the town. They surround the town.'

The parcels, previously used to grow pineapple, have remained fallow or been used to farm other crops.

Discussions about the lease had been in the works for several months, said Roy Sugiyama, chief operating officer of Molokai Properties, a subsidiary of Singapore-based BIL International Ltd.

Molokai Properties Chief Executive Peter Nicholas said Monsanto Hawaii has agreed to agricultural easements on the leased land, in line with the Community-Based Land Use Master Plan for Molokai Ranch.

'Monsanto has always been a good neighbor and provides much-needed jobs for our community,' said Nicholas. 'We believe this will be tremendous for the island.'

Paul Koehler, Monsanto's scientific and community affairs manager, said the long-term lease will allow the company to invest in new equipment.

Monsanto, which has had a presence on Molokai since the mid-'60s, then under the name Hawaiian Research, currently employs about 110 full-time and 80 seasonal employees on Molokai. Statewide it employs 600 full-time and 100 seasonal employees.

But environmental and community activists are battling its growing presence.

In November 2003, Earthjustice filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to comply with federal environmental laws by approving permits, including one to Monsanto, for GMO field tests.

A U.S. District Court judge found last year that the USDA had violated federal environmental laws. The defendants have appealed the ruling.

Earthjustice is challenging the court's prohibition of public disclosure of the site locations.

'We see the corn fields, but we can't get any information about what they're doing,' said Ritte. 'We don't know the impact on our health or on traditional medicines and plants.'

The seed business is one of the fastest-growing agricultural industries in Hawaii.

It has already surpassed the longtime staple of sugar in crop value and is closing in on pineapple.

The seed industry was worth an estimated $70 million in the 2005-2006 season and is still growing. Pineapple was worth an estimated $79.3 million in 2005, seed crops were worth $70.4 million and sugar cane was worth $58.8 million, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

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