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Chris Hamilton

HONOLULU - The state Legislature this week finally indicated that it plans to say no to Hawaii taro GMO.

The "Taro Security Bill" was approved by the state Senate on third reading Thursday, after passing in the House last month. It will ban the controversial practice of using and developing genetically modified organisms for Hawaiian varieties of taro only.

The ban, which for four years has attracted crowds to the Capitol, slipped through almost unnoticed as lawmakers approved more than 300 bills this week.

The final version of House Bill 1663 and Senate Bill 709 will be hashed out next week in conference committee before being sent to Gov.
Linda Lingle for her signature.

The bill passed both chambers with near-unanimous support, ensuring the ability for an override if a veto occurred. Only Republican Oahu Sens. Fred Hemmings and Sam Slom voted against the ban.

Governor spokesman Russell Pang said that the state Department of Agriculture opposed the bill, but that Lingle had not indicated plans for a veto.

The five-year ban is a significant victory for taro farmers, Native Hawaiians and GMO opponents in general, who have repeatedly said the science remains in its infancy and that the dangers of genetic modification of food are unknown. Native Hawaiians say it's a sacred plant that should not be altered under any circumstances.

However, University of Hawaii at Manoa researchers and Monsanto agriculture company officials have argued that nearly 700 government and private studies have been done on the safety of genetically modified foods for well over a decade; and they have a perfect track record.

"For me, this is about cultural integrity," said the House bill's author, Rep. Mele Carroll, D-East Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe.

Carroll is chairwoman of the Hawaiian Affairs Committee and grows dry- land taro herself. Sen. J. Kalani English, D-Upcountry, East Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Kahoolawe, who is also Native Hawaiian, introduced the bill on the Senate side.

English said it's not only personal for him, but also is a precautionary measure against an unproven science.

The bill's language prohibits the development, testing, propagation, release, importation, planting and growing of genetically engineered Hawaiian taro in the state. But non-Hawaiian taro, such as Chinese Bun- long, can be genetically engineered as long as it's done in the controlled environment of a laboratory, Carroll said.

All field testing would be prohibited.

Sen. Shan Tsutsui, D-Kahakuloa, Wailuku, Waikapu, Kahului, Lower Paia, said the bill was pragmatic since it allows the science to continue moving forward while respecting the cultural perspective.

"Wouldn't it be ironic if one of these genetically modified taro species saved Hawaiian taro someday from being wiped out," Tsutsui said.

Crops are genetically modified in order to better resist disease and insects and produce much higher yields while using less fertilizer and pesticides.

Carroll said that her position not only echoed the sentiments of many of her constituent taro farmers - many of whom also have called on the Maui County Council to create a genetic engineering ban - but also followed her own spiritual beliefs as a Native Hawaiian. In the host culture, taro, or kalo as it's called, is an ancestor to the people, she said.

The House and Senate may still debate whether to allow for open-field testing of non-native taro. Farmers and activists have concerns that genetically modified taro could accidentally crossbreed with crops.

The bill "sunsets" after five years, so in order for it to continue the Legislature will need to approve a new ban at that time.

Earlier this year, the Hawaii County Council instituted a similar GMO ban on the Big Island that included protecting taro and Kona coffee.
And just this month, Maui County Council Member Bill Medeiros introduced a proposal to ban GMO taro in the county.

The GMO trade industries and agricultural researchers have expressed concerns that if the state agrees to ban taro testing it could lead to widespread prohibitions against genetic testing on corn, bananas and other common Hawaii crops.

"GMO crops are safe and well regulated," Harold Keyser, UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources county administrator for Maui, told the Maui County Council last month. "The accumulated area planted since 1996 (in 25 countries) now exceeds 2 billion acres, again with a perfect safety record."

The House passed a bill this session that would have precluded counties from instituting any GMO crop bans on their own. But HB1226, which was introduced by House Speaker Rep. Calvin Say, never got a hearing in the Senate. It died on the vine.

* Chris Hamilton can be reached at News