The Taro Plant An Intrinsic part of Hawaiian Culture

Oct 9, 2019 | General Information

The Taro plant is a staple of the Native Hawaiian diet. But taro is much more, so much more that it is central to Hawaiian culture. Hawaiians believe that the taro plant is sacred. Called “kalo” in Hawaiian, Taro is a key part of the Native Hawaiian creation story. In ancient Hawaii, taro was at the spiritual center of Hawaiian agricultural society. The taro plant was viewed as essential to Hawaiians’ survival and prosperity.

For non-Hawaiians, including many in Hawaii itself, the history of the taro plant is difficult to understand and appreciate. In tales of taro’s origins, it is the stillborn first child of Wakea, the sky father, and his daughter (Ho`ohokukalani). This stillborn child was buried near their house. It grew into a taro plant. A second son born to Wakea took human form and was named Haloa, after his elder brother. For Hawaiians the human race descended from Haloa, a sibling of taro.
From ancient times forward, generations of Hawaiian planters cultivated hundreds of varieties of taro, each one for specific growing conditions. Depending on these conditions, taro matured in nine to 12 months. Over the years, Hawaiians have resisted any tampering with taro that undermines or threatens its integrity, biodiversity or production yields.

The biggest challenge to Hawaiians and their taro came in 2002 when the University of Hawaii had the audacity to patent three varieties of taro. Hawaiian farmers would have to license taro for planting. In 2003, without input from Hawaiians, the UH, in conjunction with the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center , began genetic engineering of three varieties of taro. Native Hawaiians were outraged and organized protests. Several years later, in 2006, UH dropped its patents on the 3 varieties of taro and agreed to stop genetic engineering of Hawaiian taro.

But the fight to stop GMO research on Taro continued in the Hawaii state legislature until a moratorium in 2008. At the time a task force was created to bring taro farmers, state agencies and the UH together to pool their taro knowledge and experience and to protect taro as a vital cultural legacy in Hawaii. These conflicts between native Hawaiians, the state of Hawaii and other parties to protect taro help to explain other efforts by native Hawaiians to protect and preserve their Hawaiian culture.