Friday, April 24, 2009

Brother Taro

My Fun Fact this week was about the taro plant. In Hawaii, that's an ancient topic. It's said that the first Polynesians to settle the islands actually brought the taro plant with them. Once cultivated, taro -- and poi, made from boiling and pounding the root of the plant -- became a staple.

My Fun Fact was actually a current event report. Last week, the Hawaiian Legislature voted to prohibit genetic modification of Hawaiian varieties of the taro plant. Taro is already the official state plant, but proponents of the bill felt it was necessary to protect the plant from being altered through scientific tinkering.

Botanists at the University of Hawaii opposed the bill, saying that genetic engineering can actually protect plants from disease. But others argued that allowing scientists to change the plant was in effect biopiracy. That was a new one on me. But as I learned, the definition of biopiracy is an attempt by organizations, such as food-producing corporations and universities, to patent or otherwise claim the rights to native-grown foods of indigenous peoples.

One reason many Hawaiians were adamant about protecting the taro is that the plant is considered sacred. According to myth, Wakea, also known as Sky Father, created the islands and the Hawaiians. But his first-born son, whom he named Häloa, was badly deformed and stillborn. From the dead baby's grave sprang a plant, the taro.

The next-born son, also named Häloa, was the first Hawaiian. The growing plant was considered to be his elder brother. And that belief, that the taro is the elder brother of all Hawaiians, has been held for generations. It's said that when a Hawaiian eats poi, he or she actually ingests the mana (power) of Häloa the elder brother. We could all use some big brother power from time to time.

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