Making breeding illegal

by Luigi Guarino on March 5, 2009

“When the disease comes in here, it’s going to wipe you out and you’ll have nothing left.”

That’s Ching Yuan Hu, associate dean for the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, talking about legislation that would outlaw genetic modification of taro in Hawaii. Not sure which disease he’s talking about. Maybe our Pacific readers will tell us. Or Danny. Taro Leaf Blight is already in Hawaii, but others aren’t, of course.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Inoculated Mind March 5, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Technically, any genetic modification brought about by breeding would be illegal if “Changing the basic structure of the sacred Hawaiian taro plant” is made illegal. If this wording is in the legislation, then they are basically legislating that natural genetic recombination, outcrossing, etc, does not change the genetic structure of taro.
Note the interesting use of the word “sacred” repeatedly when describing the ‘need’ to ‘protect’ the plant from genetic engineering. Yay for misusing religion for political purposes. The obvious counter-argument is that not allowing researchers to defend Taro against future diseases violates the sanctity of the holy plant.

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Jeremy March 6, 2009 at 8:45 am

@Inoculated Mind – Good points.

I am reminded that when the famous Asilomar conference of 1975 agreed a moratorium on recombination in the laboratory, the wonderfully entertaining and insightful Sydney Brenner commented ruefully to the effect that his graduate students might have to find other places to amuse themselves as they waited for their experiments to proceed.

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Inoculated Mind March 7, 2009 at 5:25 am

Hilarious! I’ve got to remember that one.

I firmly believe it would actually be possible to get people (and possibly legislatures) to sign a petition (or bill) that bans “genetic recombination” in all species, domesticated or wild, for a given region. I’ve got all sorts of ways to describe it – the randomness, risk, profit motives, protecting the integrity of god’s green earth, you name it you came frame it.

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Robert March 8, 2009 at 12:33 pm

“Taro farmers told legislators they’re concerned that genetically modified taro varieties could cross-pollinate with Hawaiian varieties.”

Is anyone producing taro from seed in Hawaii? Or is this something that happen unintentionally (through “volunteers”) ?

“taro is used to make the starchy food poi AND is revered as an ancestor of the Hawaiian people.”

Ancesterovores! And THAT is legal?

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Inoculated Mind March 10, 2009 at 6:06 am

From here:

As flowering and seed production rarely occurs, taro is propagated by setts (A), which consist of the lower 30-40 cm of the leaf stalk together with the top 1-3 cm of the corm, from sucker corms (B) and full corms (C).

So if you grow Taro with this method, you will rarely have a cross-pollination. What this also means is that the taro being grown will not be able to recombine and adapt to pests and diseases. I wonder how much actual taro breeding occurs in the world? The wikipedia page on Taro shows that taro production in Hawaii is on a sharp decline, pests and disease contributing along with human development. If Taro was driven from Hawaii by these problems, I wonder what the religious and cultural reaction would be?

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Inoculated Mind March 10, 2009 at 6:07 am

Ack! Bad href code! Please fix my garish comment!

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Jeremy March 10, 2009 at 6:59 am
Luigi March 10, 2009 at 8:37 am

The main taro breeding programmes that I know of are in Hawaii, India, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. TaroGen was an important programme and its work is continuing. Our friend Danny was involved for some years. It was held at least partly responsible for bringing taro cultivation back from the brink in Samoa after taro leaf blight hit.

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Anastasia March 17, 2009 at 3:44 am

This reminds me of the unfortunately successful work in Europe to ban the Amflora potato (which has improved starch for industrial purposes, simply expressing more of one natural potato starch and less of another). Potatoes, like taro, are propagated vegetatively, so even if pollen drifted, it wouldn’t matter. I just don’t understand.

And, wow. I’d love to see them try to outlaw plant breeding of any species. Say goodbye to cultivated varieties, then.

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