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Historic Vote: Hawai'i Island says "No Thanks" to GMO Taro and Coffee!!

Posted by kahea at Oct 10, 2008 05:33 AM |

From Jim Quirk’s article in Hawai’i Island Daily West Hawaii Today:

The Hawaii County Council voted 9-0 Wednesday in favor of a bill from North Kona Councilman Angel Pilago on its second reading to ban genetically modified taro and coffee.

It was a circus-like atmosphere Wednesday in Hilo’s Ben Franklin building, where the meeting was held. Children played in the hallways outside of the council chambers waiting for their chance to speak along with their parents. A man standing in the hallway corner sang as he strummed the strings of a guitar.
The council, meanwhile, listened to a different tune, one delivered by the seemingly endless convoy of residents who took turns at the microphone to give their two cents on the proposed ban.

About 70 residents testified in Hilo, while about 30 testified via teleconference from the council offices in Waimea and Kona. There have been no major complaints about banning genetically modified taro, but with coffee it’s a different story.

On one side of the debate are those who believe genetic modification of coffee could eventually spell disaster for the island’s coffee industry. Off-island buyers would not be interested in Kona coffee that has been purposely or accidentally genetically modified, the proponents believe.

Then there are residents who believe, among other things, without genetic modification of coffee, there will be no scientific answers when disease strikes and destroys Big Island coffee.

A vast majority of residents who spoke Wednesday said they were in favor of the ban.

Dr. Hector Valenzuela, a vegetable crops extension specialist with the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said he — unlike all of his peers at the college — supports the bill.

He said the scientific community should be concentrating on aspects of agricultural research, such as teaching farmers how to sustain crops without having to rely on chemicals, rather than genetic modification.

Bill proponent Chuck Moss, a Kona coffee farmer, said one potentiality of genetically modified coffee is that experiments in creating coffee trees without caffeine could spread to other trees. If that happened, it would be hard to market Kona coffee, he said.

“How can you tell the difference from a regular tree from a decaf tree, or a regular bean from a decaf bean?” Moss asked.

Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong furnished results of a poll he conducted recently that shows 82 percent of 89 Big Island coffee farmers support the bill.

He said during a separate interview that his office identified isle coffee farmers using the phone book, Internet and personal knowledge.

During a previous meeting, representatives of the Hawaii Coffee Council indicated a majority of island coffee farmers are against the bill, Yagong said, which is why he wanted to conduct a poll to find out for sure.

Hilo Councilman Stacy Higa, who voted against the bill on its first reading, said Yagong’s survey changed his mind.

Mayor Harry Kim, who is still not back to work full time because of his recent heart attack, made an appearance early in the meeting and expressed concerns that the bill wouldn’t allow genetic testing of coffee in the lab setting.

He requested the council consider developing a system where research at places like the University of Hawaii at Hilo would be able to continue.

Kim could attempt to veto the bill, but it seems unlikely it would succeed because of the unanimous council vote Wednesday.

Let Hawaii Island Be Known...

….for an inspiring legacy of good food & pono politics!

It’s Time!
Love local Hawaiian food and agriculture? Here’s your opportunity to voice your support for a historic, groundbreaking new law that would ban GMO (genetically modified) Taro and Coffee on Hawai’i Island!

Click and send testimony of support, no matter where you live!

MUST Submit Testimony by TUESDAY October 7th

This Oct. 8th will be the final Hawai’i County Council vote on Bill 361
If you are on the Big Island, please attend this crucial hearing!
Public hearing in HILO- Ben Franklin Building, 2nd Floor. County Council Office
Day-long hearing begins 10:30AM

So Much Support So Far!
- Introduced by Council Member Angel Pilago, Bill 361 would ban the growing of genetically modified Taro and Coffee on the Big Island.
- This bill has received overwhelming public and political support, and has already successfully passed through two Council votes to make it to this FINAL VOTE.
- If the bill passes this last vote it will go on for final approval by Mayor Harry Kim of Hawaii County.

At this critical moment this effort needs massive support more than ever- the local farmers and consumers need help standing up against the strong-arming by huge multinational corporations.

Art kindly donated by Solomon Enos, Hawaiian Artist/Farmer. You can support Native Art at

Kalo and Kona Coffee are perfect as they are!
If allowed, GMO taro could threaten taro’s important status as the world’s only hypoallergenic carbohydrate source! Taro farming in Hawaii is an unique local tradition. There are now innovative and successful agricultural efforts underway to improve the local taro industry and perpetuate valuable Hawaiian taro varieties.

Long-term studies have shown that the best way to comprehensively protect taro from disease blights is to grow many different varieties, improve soil quality and provide adequate water. There is no need or demand for GMO interference and industry control of local taro farming.

Genetic modification of this indigenous plant is also extremely disrespectful to the sacred genealogy of taro to Hawaiians, who view taro as an ancestral family member, Haloa.

If allowed, GMO coffee would erode the demand, drop prices, and destroy the local economy for pure Kona coffee. It would also make organic coffee growing virtually impossible.

Lessons learned: The local papaya industry was economically devastated by the introduction of GMO-papaya. Rejection of Hawaiian grown GMO-papaya by Japan dropped the value of the local papaya industry by over 50%. Sadly, about 40% of papaya farmers were forced out of business. Meanwhile, the value of the organic and conventional (non-GMO) papaya industry has increased.

What is a GMO?
GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are plant mutants created by inserting genes from one species into another unrelated species, using virus and bacteria to transfer the genes. For example, forcing wheat genes into taro, or bacteria genes into corn. These man-made organisms can be patented and owned. Organic food growers have rejected GMO, and GMO food cannot be certified organic. This experimental technique is crude and imprecise, unsafe, unnatural and rejected by the governments of most nations and the majority of the world’s population.

More about the GMO problems, read the Bill 361, and click-and-send testimony.

While multi-national corporations seeking GMO patents and profits have deep pockets and resources, local communities depend on committed citizens to defend our rights to a clean environment and safe food.  It is the dedication of those who care deeply about the future of food, culture and agriculture in Hawaii that makes the difference!

Let us learn from the economic and environmental destruction already caused by the GMO industry in the Philippines, Mexico, India, South America and farming communities all across America! Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen in Hawaii! We can and must show that Hawaii Island wants sustainable, pono, non-GMO agricultural job opportunities and will stand-up to protect our local agricultural economy and environment!

We Know Better, So Let’s Tell ‘Em!
Bill 361 is a very important step to maintaining local control over our island food resources, consumer safety, environmental protections and economic opportunity. We have a real chance to create meaningful reform, to protect taro, and our heritage coffee for all future generations that are to come. Pests and disease in agriculture can be solved by ecological and sustainable means; we need to move in that direction.  It is time for everyone to speak for community food self-reliance, and GMO coffee and taro does not move us in that direction.  We need the Council to send a strong and unanimous message on this bill to the Mayor: Hawai’i Island wants protection and preservation for our unique heritage crops, that sustain our life, our families, and our communities.

Water Win: Hundreds Respond to Taro Farmers' Call for Help

Art kindly donated by Solomon Enos, Hawaiian Artist/Farmer.
Support Native Art!

A big MAHALO! is due to the hundreds of people who responded to the call from taro farmers! They submitted testimony in droves and packed the room at the Water Commission hearing last Wednesday in Haiku–to demand that East Maui Irrigation Company (EMI) stop diverting every last drop of water from the streams of East Maui.

The Commission took two days’ worth of public testimony and ultimately agreed with the taro farmers, scientists, and general public that EMI is diverting too much water from at least 8 of the 27 streams at issue.  The Water Commission ruled that EMI must return at least 12 million gallons of water a day to those 8 streams in order for the native stream life to survive.

This is a historic decision was made possible only by the consistent and growing public pressure to uphold the constitutional rights of taro farmers and the legal obligations of the state to protect native ecosystems against the profit-seeking interests of corporations.  Mahalo piha to everyone who took the time to participate.  This decision will serve as a model for water restoration efforts throughout the islands.

Here is the mahalo we got from the attorney for the taro farmers in East Maui, Alan Murakami with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation:

Mahalo nui loa for all the help…  I think it really helped get the word out and I was impressed by the hundreds that responded to our call for help.

There is still much to do during the so-called “Adaptive Management System” being overlaid on this decision.  It simply means that the staff will use the next year to do what it was supposed to do before the decision on appurtenant rights…

In short, I think the community pressure put on the company and the commission worked wonders.  You should congratulate yourself for the supportive work you did.  Now the implementation… more work to do and I hope I can count on all of you to post the updated information as it becomes available – both good and bad.  I certainly think the news of the almost miraculous restoration of conditions at the muliwai is one of the headline things to report.

The fight continues today with a contested case hearing in Haiku to invalidate the leases improperly issued to EMI and its parent corporation, Alexander & Baldwin, for use of the land where the diversions are located.  Whatever the outcome of this contested case, history has already been made in East Maui and nothing can stop the people-powered momentum towards restoring all the streams that have been improperly and immorally diverted from their nature course for far too long by multi-national industrial agriculture corporations. Stay tuned for updates on this string of historic decisions.

Mahalo nui loa to the people of East Maui for continuing this historic fight, and their legal team at the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.

Life is where the water is.
As the Hawaiian kupuna and natural resource experts had foretold- just one month after restoring stream flow to Waikane stream, in Wailuanui East Maui, native marine life has already re-inhabited the stream, estuary (muliwai) and bay. The local community can finally return to their traditional practices such as farming, fishing, and enjoying the cool water recreationally. It had been 30 years since the Waikane native ecosystem existed in its natural healthy state. It is hoped that coming generations will not have to experience the environmental devastation that the community has suffered without water.

Showdown: Taro Farmers vs. Big Business

Public Hearing to Restore Water to East Maui Streams
Wednesday Sept. 24th
at 1:00 pm till testimony is pau
Haiku Community Center, Maui.

Parched loi in East Maui, July 2008

From Marti:

Tomorrow the taro farmers of East Maui will confront (for the umpteenth time) the corporation(s) stealing water from their communities. Taro patches and native streams are dry all through the Hawaiian Islands because former sugar plantation/corporations continue to divert water from their natural course – selling the water back to users and banking the water for future housing developments (note: “water banking” is a nice way of saying “water wasting”).

The Hawaii Constitution specifically grants traditional taro farmers the right to water over newcomer users like these big corporations.  But the state has not enforced the law.  It’s been more than five years since the taro farmers of East Maui won their case in court and water still has not been released from the diversions.

Tomorrow’s hearing before the Commission on Water Resources Management is another attempt to get the state government to uphold the law and protect Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources by establishing minimum in-stream flow standards, which will require the release of water currently being illegally diverted by East Maui Irrigation Co. (a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin, one of “The Big Five” corporations that once dominated Hawaii during the days of sugar plantations).

Keep watching. The next hearing will be on October 1, 2008, when the taro farmers argue their motion to compel the state government to follow the law and release the water.

To learn more, visit

Hawaii County Council Bill Banning GMO Gets Closer to Approval

Posted by kahea at Sep 10, 2008 08:18 PM |

From West Hawaii Today:

Hawaii County is a step closer to being able to prevent the introduction of genetically modified taro and coffee.

The County Council Environmental Management Committee unanimously sent a bill to prohibit growing genetically modified versions of those two crops to full council with a positive recommendation. Council Vice Chairman Angel Pilago, North Kona, introduced the bill, which provides for criminal prosecution of anyone bringing in and growing the genetically modified plants. He previously introduced a resolution, which passed, asking the state Legislature to prohibit genetically modified taro and coffee; that measure failed earlier this year.

The bill “protects cultural practices,” as well as protects the taro and coffee industries “via county home rule,” Pilago said.

Under the bill, it will be illegal to “test, propagate, cultivate, raise, plant, grow, introduce or release” genetically engineered taro and coffee.”

County Corporation Counsel and the county prosecutor’s office both reviewed the bill before it was presented to the council, Pilago said.

“We all know if this goes to the state Legislature, they’re not going to do anything as a body,” South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford said.

Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong asked a representative of the Corporation Counsel’s office what would happen if state legislators enacted a law to allow genetically modified taro and coffee to be produced in Hawaii. That law might supersede the county’s law, depending on the wording, the deputy corporation counsel said.

Barring that, “it would be legal?” Yagong asked. “It would have jurisdiction over the scientific community and companies, they would be banned from bringing it in?”

Upon hearing an affirmative answer, Yagong noted that he isn’t necessarily opposed to scientists changing genetic makeup of plants, but when farmers ask for it, not when they oppose it.

More than a dozen people testified in support of the bill, while two testified against it.

ACT 211 - The Taro Security and Purity Task Force

For taro farmers, taro buyers and taro eaters, some information from Onipaa Na Hui Kalo on the Taro Security and Purity Task Force. The following provides information on the origins of the Task Force (Act 211), what and who it is (and is not), and its goals:

How did the Task Force come to be?
As a food crop, taro is a multi-million dollar industry in this state. Its importance in Hawaiian culture is beyond measure. As are its contributions to health, education, family and community economics, the arts, and the visitor industry. Ensuring that taro and poi will be around in the future has become increasingly difficult with lack of water, access to taro-growing lands, and crop diversity; the apple snail, taro diseases; a shortage of taro farmers; and competition from taro imports.

In 2006 under Senator Russell Kokubun’s SCR206 the Department of Agriculture was tasked with opening a dialogue to look at non-gmo alternatives to research, policy, education, crop and market issues for taro.  One of the desired outcomes expressed by all of the participants in the effort launched under SCR206 was a Task Force to continue the to reach taro farming communities, set priorities, make recommendations and implement initial projects. Based on that recommendation, SB2915 was drafted by taro farmers and introduced by Senator Kalani English in 2008. This bill proposed a two-year, funded, Taro Security and Purity Task Force. The bill and its budget received unanimous ‘aye’ votes from the legislature and was passed into law, becoming Act 211, on July 3rd, 2008.

However, Governor Lingle used her line-item veto power to delete the funding for the Task Force, which forced the Task Force to pursue its work without the necessary financial support in spite of the fact that taro remains an icon to the State’s identity and was officially designated as the State Plant in 2008 (Act 71). OHA has agreed to provide initial funding as a partner and administrator of the Task Force. It will be necessary to find additional resources to fulfill all the goals of the Task Force.

What and Who is the Task Force?
Act 211, the Taro Security and Purity Task Force represents the first time that guidance for taro and the problems farmers are facing will come from the real experts – farmers – and from the taro itself, as odd as that may sound to many. It is precisely this guidance that has been missing from the table for decades.

  • The Task Force is NOT an “anti-gmo advisory group”. Its task is to find, prioritize and support non-gmo alternatives to taro farmers’ issues in Hawaii. A working definition of “taro purity” and “taro security” is necessary to guide Task Force decisions over the next two years.
  • It is also NOT an Hawaiian-only task force. Taro farmers in Hawaii are Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Caucasian, etc. Collectively we want taro, the lifestyle of taro farming and the value of taro in our communities to survive.

So, who is this Task Force for? It is for the taro itself; for the survival of a lifestyle that is fast disappearing in these islands; and for the economic survival of the smallest taro patches to the largest. They all feed us.

What are the goals of the Task Force?

There are nine goals outlined for the Task Force under Act 211, subject to the priorities identified by its members:

1. Develop guidelines, protocols, and recommendations for taro policy, non-gmo based taro research, and the allocation of resources to ensure that taro is saved and protected in Hawaii.

2. Develop a program of incentives and projects that have the support of a broad spectrum of taro growers that will enhance taro security, protect taro purity, provide support to taro farms and farmers, and improve taro markets for the long-term.

3. Support the recovery of traditional Hawaiian taro cultivars throughout the State.

4. Increase public awareness of the value of taro and its role culturally, socially, in health and well-being, environmentally, and economically in the State.

5. Develop a program to provide taro education and training opportunities.

6. Develop a program for commercial taro growers to maximize business viability and success.

7. Develop a taro farming grant program to assist taro farmers in need to preserve the cultural legacy of taro farming for future generations.

8. Discuss the feasibility and impact of requiring the Department of Land and Natural Resources to provide reduced lease rent rates for taro farmers on state-leased land.

9. Develop taro research and outreach for the control and eradication of apple snails.

Who is the Task Force?
The Task Force will have a minimum of 17 members. Act 211 states that the Task Force shall have one representative from each of the following agencies and organizations:

Department of Agriculture
Department of Land and Natural Resources
Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation
University of Hawaii
Office of Hawaiian Affairs
Onipaa Na Hui Kalo

It shall have a minimum of two representatives from each of the following islands: Hawaii, Maui, Molokai, Oahu and Kauai.

At least one representative from the botanical garden community involved in the cultivation and protection of the traditional Hawaiian varieties of taro will also be a member of the task force.

Most importantly, Act 211 states that “at no time shall less than 50 percent of the Task Force be comprised of taro farmers.”

Island representative qualifications:
1. A minimum of three years as a taro farmer.
2. A commitment to attend all Task Force meetings for a minimum of one year; the life of the Task Force is two years.
3. A commitment to communicate with all taro growers on your island; not just those in your own network. The success of the Task Force depends on this.

A broad group of taro representatives are sought that include commercial, sustenance, cultural and educational growers.

Why house the Task Force at OHA?
A state recognized entity was administratively necessary to house the task force. It was taro farmers’ requests that placed it under OHA rather than the DOA or UH for a number of reasons, not the least of which were issues of trust and the conflict over gmo taro research. Some also felt that OHA was a culturally appropriate place for the task force to be located. For some, Haloa, is the first kanaka maoli, and OHA carries its namesake, the “oha”, or children, of Haloa.

OHA also recently purchased Makaweli Poi Mill on Kauai and is now a member of the lo’i-to-table flow to market. They need to expand their understanding of what incentives and projects will better support taro, farmers and millers to be successful. By working with all taro farmers, OHA helps improve the chance that taro, luau and poi can get to every Hawaiian.

As the administrator of the group, OHA will select the best qualified kalo farmer applicants to serve as representatives. In addition, OHA will cover the costs of holding the task force meetings, as well as member travel fees for kalo farmer representatives.

The deadline to send applications is September 15, 2008.

Applications must be written and include the applicants’ full name, address, a brief description of their fulfillment of the four qualifications, what they believe they will be able to contribute to the task force and a short list of what they believe are the most important issues facing kalo.
You can send applications to Sterling Wong of OHA’s Native Rights, Land and Culture division by email to or by regular mail to 711 Kapiolani Blvd., Suite 500, Honolulu Hi, 96813.  For more information call 594-0248.

For more information please see:

Who is Onipaa Na Hui Kalo?
Onipaa Na Hui Kalo is a statewide organization formed more than 10 years ago, with over 300 practitioners and enthusiasts who grow kalo in backyard gardens, on reclaimed kuleana lands, and large scale farming operations. Members come from all the islands. Onipaa Na Hui Kalo operates as a hui that works by consensus rather than as a formal organization. Members help each other to increase knowledge of growing kalo and kalo issues, to encourage more taro farmers on the land and to reactivate loi kalo to productive use.

Molokai: residents forced to pay 178% more for water

From Marti:
Big Mahalos to the people of Molokai for making the journey to Honolulu to raise awareness about Molokai Ranch’s new ploy to exploit cash for water.  I was shocked to hear that Gov. Lingle allowed Molokai Ranch to raise residents’ water rates 178% or risk losing all water services.  HEWA!  Access to clean water is a basic human right.  Molokai Ranch took on the responsibility of providing water to people (for a profit) all these years and now that profits are down they just want to close up shop.  That’s just wrong.

Rep. Carroll (D-Molokai) said it herself, “Molokai Ranch should not simply walk away from legal and moral obligations” to provide water service to the residents of Molokai.

There is word for what Molokai Ranch is doing, it’s called: extortion.  Good for Molokaiians for sticking up for themselves.  If this ridiculous rate increase is allowed to stand, then it sets a bad precedent for all of us in Hawaii who pay to have water pumped into our homes. Someday soon they are going to come knocking on all of our doors threatening to cut off our water if we don’t pay them a hundred times more.

A statement from the residents of Molokai:

In May, Molokai Ranch, citing financial impossibility but providing no financial evidence, suddenly announced the company would terminate its water and sewage utility services at the end of August. In July, The Department Of Health said: “The lack of a sustained and reliable source of safe drinking water in West Molokai will create a substantial danger…an imminent peril to the public health and safety.” By threatening to cut off an essential lifeline to the Molokai community, Molokai Ranch created a manmade and calculated crisis in order to avoid financial responsibility.

Without conducting a physical or financial audit of the utilities, the PUC bought into the Ranch’s threats, sided against the ratepayer, and claimed it “had no choice” but to raise the rates of Waiola O Molokai, Inc water utility by an unprecedented 178%.  The people of Molokai cannot afford to pay such exorbitant rate increases, and should not be forced to subsidize mismanaged utilities.

Not only was the rate increase unprecedented and unjustified, but the rate review and approval process was fundamentally flawed.  The PUC, which should be acting as a regulatory agency for the utilities, assumed an unprecedented role and filed for the rate increase on behalf of the utilities, as the Ranch claimed poverty (while still refusing to disclose financial records) and refused to file its own proceedings for a rate increase.  The PUC also disallowed Molokai ratepayers to intervene as a formal party to the proceedings.

Compounding the PUC’s procedural errors, the DCCA then failed to advocate on behalf of the affected ratepayers.  A 25% increase is normally the cap for a rate increase; instead of upholding this policy on behalf of the local consumer, the government agencies appeased the demands of a foreign-owned business and arbitrarily approved a 178% increase knowing that Molokai ratepayers cannot afford to pay such an egregious rate increase.

The Molokai community has filed a formal complaint with the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate the PUC for breaching a duty to ensure that all rates, fares, and charges are “just and reasonable” and to investigate the DCCA for breaching a duty to “represent, protect, and advance the interests of all consumers, including small businesses, of utility services”. The Molokai community asks that the August 14, 2008 rate increase approval be considered null and void.

The Molokai community asks that Governor Lingle, who oversees both the PUC and the DCCA, overturn the PUC’s rate approval and demand a fair and just rate review process. Molokai Ranch should be asking for a rate increase instead of the PUC, and the people of Molokai should be granted legal standing as a participant in the rate review process.

(photo by Trevor Atkins)

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