Taro, or kalo, is sacred to many Native Hawaiians, some of whom revere it as an ancestor. Made into poi, taro was a critical part of the diet of early Hawaiians and is still popular today. Thousands of varieties of taro grow around the world, but only select plants were brought to Hawaiʻi by Polynesian settlers.
“If you’re carrying taro in your canoe, you can only bring your most treasured varieties,” explains College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources agronomist Susan Miyasaka. “So it has been shown that the genetic diversity of Hawaiian taro varieties in Hawaiʻi are very low.”
Today, there are less than 60 Hawaiian taro varieties in existence and they are susceptible to certain diseases and pests.
“The worst case scenario is you could lose your Hawaiian taro varieties without breeding for increased resistance to these diseases and pests,” says Miyasaka.
Not everyone agrees that it should be hybridized, or interbred, with foreign varieties.
“I believe that it’s very important that we keep Native Hawaiian varieties of kalo separate from other varieties, so that everybody can be able to identify what is a Hawaiian variety. Then we’re safe, then we can move on,” says Nahulu Maioho, a UH Hilo graduate student in indigenous language and culture education and assistant director at Ka Papa Loʻi O Kānewai.
The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources supports both approaches with its collection of sustainable and organic taro varieties growing at the UH Waimānalo Research Station.
Dozens of Hawaiian taro varieties are part of the collection, as are Chinese, Japanese, Palauan and Samoan varieties, plus hybrids and others contributed by commercial taro farmers and community organizations.
The college recently hosted a Taro Field Day that brought together about two hundred taro experts and enthusiasts like eighth-generation taro farmer Jerry Konanui, who spoke about taro identification, and others who addressed issues of bio security and the latest practical solutions to meet new threats to Hawaiʻi’s taro industry.
“Every year, as we import and export food, new things and new problems pop up,” says Jari Sugano, an extension agent at the college who liaisons between academics, farmers and the community. “Our role at the college is try and mitigate some of those issues through research, education and innovation. But also being respectful to the cultures and the traditions here in Hawaiʻi.”
Being respectful of those traditions is why the university has an indefinite moratorium on genetic engineering research with Hawaiian taro varieties and has relinquished all patent rights to new hybrids.
Even those who disagree with the direction of some of the research, see the value of the college’s outreach work. “Today’s field day is very important to the community,” according to Maioho. “It is a way for UH to reach out to the community in distributing the Hawaiian varieties, educating about the Hawaiian varieties and also educating the community about the insects, the viruses that affect kalo production.”