WAILUKU - A bill prohibiting genetically modified taro in Maui County received final approval Friday by the Maui County Council.
In other council business, a bill banning alcohol at Kamaole Beach Park I received initial approval.
The taro bill prohibits anyone from testing, propagating, growing or introducing genetically engineered or modified taro, or kalo, within Maui County. Council members voted 9-0 to approve the ban, saying they believed taro's cultural and spiritual significance to Native Hawaiians was more important than any other factor.
Mayor Charmaine Tavares said after the vote that she would support the ban.
"I will be signing the bill into law and recognize that the passage of this new law will send a message of support for state Representative Mele Carroll's efforts to introduce and pass a bill at the state Legislature," she said in an e-mailed statement.
"The input from various stakeholders that I've received has been valuable," Tavares said. "I am told that this important law will bring us closer to protection of kalo on a statewide level. I support the intent of the bill and the protection of Hawaiian kalo, which deserves our respect and acknowledgment for its ancestral ties to Native Hawaiians, our host culture."
Tavares previously had expressed doubts about the bill, saying it might be difficult to enforce.
Council Member Sol Kaho'ohalahala said after the vote that he appreciated everyone's support on the bill and asked that council members continue to improve the language of the bill.
Council Member Bill Medeiros thanked people who had testified or sent e-mails in support of the bill he introduced.
Around 15 people Friday morning made it clear they were testifying in support of the ban on genetically modified taro. Supporters of the ban have argued passionately that taro is a sacred plant and staple food for Native Hawaiians and should be kept in its natural form. They feared that even if limited use or research were allowed, genetically modified forms of taro could mingle with other strains being cultivated.
Caren Diamond of Hawaii Seed - a nonprofit coalition of grass-roots groups composed of farmers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, concerned citizens and Native Hawaiians opposing the use of genetic modification - said taro was vital to Hawaiian culture.
"You have an opportunity to protect this living culture," she said.
But Harold Keyser, the Maui County administrator for the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources in Maui County, testified in opposition to the bill.
He asked for some way to conduct research on Hawaii taro, saying in one case research on taro has led to the replenishment of a taro crop that was lost in American Samoa. He said he and others who support the bill also want to see taro thrive and have it preserved.
"We care, but in a different way," Keyser said.
Also Friday, council members voted unanimously at first reading to support the prohibition of alcohol at Kamaole Beach Park I. The proposal would extend a drinking ban, applicable at the neighboring Charley Young Beach, that was passed by the council in August.
Council Member Jo Anne Johnson, who introduced the bill, said the ban at Kamaole I would make enforcement easier for police. There is no clear boundary between the two parks.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.