Sugar, pineapples, coffee, tropical flowers, taro, macadamia nuts: These are the commodities most people think of when they hear Hawaii agriculture.
Seed crop? Not so much. But the truth is seeds are the state’s No. 1 crop and have been for nearly a decade.
"I don’t think you’ll find us on any aloha shirts, though," said Kirby Kester, president-elect of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, the nonprofit trade association representing the agricultural seed industry.
Kester is a manager with BASF, one of four biotechnology seed companies that primarily occupy the fertile West Kauai flatlands where sugar cane thrived for nearly 150 years.
Today, instead of miles of sugar cane waving in the breeze, people will find row after row of corn stalks rising from the rust-red soil in a scene right out of the Midwest — minus the stunning, green-covered mountainous backdrop.
But the bucolic setting belies the storm winds swirling around Kauai’s seed companies — BASF, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta.
While the movement against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has percolated in the islands for a better part of a decade, the activities of agribusiness on Kauai didn’t draw the spotlight until recently.
In 2011, a group of 150 Waimea residents filed a lawsuit claiming DuPont Pioneer allowed pesticide and dust to be blown onto their homes for years.
Then during the summer, the companies came under attack as the Kauai County Council considered a law to impose pesticide buffer zones, halt genetic engineering pending an impact study, and require public disclosure of pesticide use and GMO plantings.
Thousands of residents, spurred in part by mainland anti-GMO interests, grabbed their homemade signs and marched in support of the proposal during a summer-long campaign. Many vilified the industry for "poisoning the land" and conducting "morally suspect" GMO research during lengthy Council hearings, in letters to the editor and on radio shows.
Until the bill was modified to remove the GMO moratorium and sizable buffer provisions, industry representatives were saying the edicts could force the companies to move their operations elsewhere.
"It was kinda scary," Kester recalled.
» 14 percent of all farmland in Hawaii is in Kauai.
» 85 percent to 90 percent of Kauai’s food is imported.
» 66 percent of all consumed fruits and vegetables in Hawaii is imported.
» Kauai produced 2 percent of the state’s vegetable harvest in 2007.
» Kauai was home to 8 percent of Hawaii’s cattle inventory in 2007.
Like IT or not, the seed industry plays a significant role in Kauai’s economy, with an annual impact estimated at $80 million and a workforce numbering between 500 to 600, many of whom were previously employed by the sugar industry.
Additionally, more than 100 Kauai vendors service the industry. Dow AgroSciences alone is investing $50 million over three years in operational infrastructure.
"The seed corn industry is enormously important to Kauai’s economy," said First Hawaiian Bank economist Jack Suyderhoud. "The four major players provide significant land rents and well-paying jobs."
But Suyderhoud, the University of Hawaii professor who recently examined Kauai’s economy for First Hawaiian, noted that the industry faces obstacles including fear and community resistance.
"The basis for the fears is controversial," he said. "What is not controversial is that if Kauai loses this part of its economic base, it will be impossible to replace in the near future — with significant economic impacts on the island."
Statewide, the industry has a combined annual economic impact exceeding $243 million, according to the state Department of Agriculture. That makes seeds Hawaii’s most valuable agricultural resource.
So how could these seed companies fly under the radar for so long?
Part of it is that none of the seed product
is marketed for Hawaii. Virtually all of it is sent to the mainland as part of the industry’s
primary function of boosting the yields of mainland corn farmers.
"It’s hard for people here to see the direct value," said Kester, who has worked in the seed industry on Kauai for 19 years. Ninety percent of the corn products Hawaii residents see on their grocery shelves, he said, is tied to some development time in Hawaii.
"The white corn that they make potato chips out of — that seed was produced here. Its roots are here," he said.
The business of breeding seeds is a relatively new one.
A hundred years ago the typical farmer would save some seeds from his annual harvest and replant them for the next year’s crop. Starting in the 1920s, scientists discovered that crossbreeding seeds from different harvests would result in plants that grew with much more vigor.
It took 40 years to figure out how to double yields, from 30 bushels per acre to about 60. Yields now have zoomed to about 150 bushels per acre thanks to the biotech seed industry, which emerged in the 1960s.
As the companies grew, they sought out new areas where they could bring their products to market with shorter lag times. Hawaii became attractive because the mild climate allows for the growing of at least three crops per year and because it can be done under the political and economic stability of the United States.
Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the forerunner of DuPont Pioneer, was the first to open on Kauai in 1968.
Corn seed is the main product, though some companies also work with soybeans, wheat, sunflower, rice and other plants. Both traditional and biotech methods are used.
The entire process, from gene selection to corn planted in a farmer’s field, can take seven years.
The sugar cane industry at its peak had about 250,000 acres under cultivation statewide. By 1985, the total was nearly 186,000 acres, including close to 44,000 on Kauai. Today, the seed companies statewide own or lease about 25,000 acres, and of that they cultivate only about 5,600 acres.
What are GMOs? Genetically modified organisms are crops whose genetic makeup has been altered to boost yields, reduce the use of pesticides, improve drought resistance or help create some other desired outcome.
Conventional crossbreeding involves the random exchange of thousands of genes. Developing a GMO plant is similar but much more precise because it involves adding only a single or a few genes at a time.
The companies produce hundreds of thousands of individual varieties of seed crops in their research. While some employees directly farm the seeds, others collect data on crop performance and analyze those results. Others test and characterize potential new varieties of seed using state-of-the art laboratory technology.
Lindsey Hashimoto used to labor amid the sunflowers and soybeans but now works in DuPont Pioneer’s Global Marker Technology lab in Waimea amid an impressive array of high-tech gadgets and machines. She insists neither her health nor the community’s health is endangered by what her company does.
She recalled 2009, the year she got pregnant. "I was down in the dirt pollinating soybeans. I didn’t stop until I was seven months pregnant," said Hashimoto, who had twins, a boy and a girl.
Sarah Styan, DuPont Pioneer senior research manager, said she also worked in the field until she was five months pregnant. Her daughter, she said, is now a healthy fifth-grader at ‘Ele’ele School.
"I was never concerned about being in the field," said Styan, originally from Massachusetts. "I grew up on a farm. I trust what the label says, the law, the regulation and the process. I believe in the process. As long as that is followed, it is safe."
But critics say safety is far from guaranteed. Among other things, they point to independent studies that suggest serious health effects from consuming GMOs, including diseases resistant to antibiotics, cancers, allergies and other problems.
During the debate on Kauai’s Bill 2491, numerous testifiers accused the biotech companies of causing health problems in the community. Others expressed worries about the potential collateral damage of genetically modified crops, including cross-contamination with organic crops, increased pesticide use and the development of herbicide-resistant superweeds.
Those leery of biotech pointed out that the seed industry discloses few details of its work, which makes it hard for the public to be informed about potential GMO pollen drift and pesticide and herbicide dangers.
While industry representatives say any lack of transparency is a function of the competition between the firms, whose trade secrets are held close to the vest, critics such as Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said that’s no excuse.
"In this circumstance, the public interest trumps the private interests," he said. "They’re pretending to be good neighbors, but I don’t see them being good for their neighbors whatsoever. They’re holding back information only for their own benefit."
Regarding health concerns about GMO foods, Kester said scientific consensus is on the seed industry’s side.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, World Health Organization, American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society have concluded that consuming foods with ingredients from GMO crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods from crops modified the old-fashioned way.
"We’re heavily regulated and audited on our safety programs, pesticide use and GMO crop trial programs. We are regulated way more than the general public understands or knows," Kester said.
As for the pesticides used by the seed industry, University of Hawaii agriculture researcher James Brewbaker described them as having the toxicity of average household cleaners. "I use the same ones at home that they do," he said.
One common herbicide employed by both the seed and sugar industries is atrazine. Because it has been shown to contaminate water supplies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed it a restricted-use chemical, which requires handling by a certified applicator.
But Stephanie Whalen, executive director of the industry-backed nonprofit Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, said studies conducted for the sugar industry in the 1980s found levels in Hawaii water supplies far below advisory levels.
Hawaii’s sugar growers historically were allowed to use larger amounts of pesticide than corn per acre, Whalen said.
"Consequently, any amount being applied now by the corn industry is less than what was allowed in the past by the sugar industry and even less likely to be a concern," she said.
Brewbaker, a professor in UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Waimanalo Research Station, added that "almost no serious ag scientist worries about GMOs or pesticides currently used on corn."
DuPont Pioneer research scientist Ryan Oyama shakes his head when he thinks of all the hysteria surrounding his industry’s doings.
"I was taking it kind of personal," he recalled during a visit to the company’s cornfields. "To hear some people, they think we grow a field of zombie corn that is going to come out at night and do terrible things. But the reality …"
The truth, he added, is that agricultural biotechnology is safe and perfectly suited to Hawaii, a high value-added work part of the knowledge economy.
"I feel pretty lucky to get this job. It allowed me to move back home," said Oyama, a 1991 ‘Iolani School graduate who went on to earn his doctorate at Harvard University.
"I find it frustrating that a minority of people are trying to kill this shining spot in our economy," he said. "I hope it works itself out, because I like my job."
SEED’S KEY PLAYERS
FORMERLY PIONEER HI-BRED: Since starting in 1968 with a station in Kekaha, Pioneer now runs four locations in Hawaii. Parent seed sites in Kekaha and Waialua are multiplication centers, taking small amounts of seed and producing more; the Kunia and Waimea research stations support breeders worldwide in developing products. The four stations work on genetically engineered and non-genetically engineered varieties of corn, soybeans, sunflower and sorghum.
HAWAII FARMING ACREAGE: About 4,500 leased acres on Kauai. DuPont Pioneer farms from Lihue to Kekaha, with several parcels and locations on the south and west sides of the island. The company also farms about 2,700 acres on Oahu. DuPont Pioneer operates across the United States and in more than 90 countries.
HAWAII EMPLOYEES: About 170 full-time employees on Kauai. DuPont Pioneer also employs up to 120 seasonal workers during its peak season. On Oahu, the company employs about 185 full-time employees and 100 seasonal workers.
DECADES ON KAUAI: Syngenta conducts research on and development of corn and soybeans. The company has been operating on Kauai for more than four decades. Syngenta was formed in 2001; its predecessor, Pride Seed Co., started operations in the late 1960s.
HAWAII FARMING ACREAGE: About 3,000 leased acres on Kauai. Syngenta occupies several farms on the west side of the island and one located on the east side. Syngenta also owns about 1,000 acres in Kunia.
HAWAII EMPLOYEES: About 175 workers on Kauai and about 50 on Oahu. In addition, Syngenta hires about 100 seasonal employees on Kauai. The company, based in Switzerland (its U.S. headquarters are in Minneapolis), has more than 28,000 employees in 90 countries.
BASF PLANT SCIENCE
THE COMPANY: BASF Plant Science cultivates corn, soybeans, rice, sunflower and canola for seed production. Both genetically modified and non-genetically modified projects are in the works for all crops except sunflower, which is only non-genetically modified. BASF does not sell seed commercially — its technology is licensed and developed through partnerships with leading seed companies. The company began Kauai fieldwork in August 2006; the site is part of a network of testing stations across North America.
HAWAII FARMING ACREAGE: About 1,000 acres on Kauai, 98 percent of which is on the island’s west side. BASF has one small field on the east side. Planted crops fill less than 150 acres in any given year. A portion of the land also serves as a buffer area between fields and neighbors. BASF has several other development stations in the mainland’s Midwest and South and around the world.
HAWAII EMPLOYEES: 11 full-time workers on Kauai and up to about 50 seasonal workers. BASF employs nearly 800 people worldwide.
CORN IS KING: Dow AgroSciences has two operations in Hawaii that are involved in various aspects of producing corn for seed. The company began operating on Kauai five years ago. Dow AgroSciences (Mycogen Seeds) has been operating a site on Molokai since 2000.
HAWAII FARMING ACREAGE: About 4,000 leased acres on Kauai. An operation that borders the south shore and west side (a former sugar cane farm) near Kaumakani includes about 3,500 acres; and an east-side farm in the Puhi area, just west of Lihue, has about 500 acres.
HAWAII EMPLOYEES: 40 full-time employees, and up to 150 seasonal workers on Kauai. Worldwide, Dow AgroSciences has 118 operation sites and about 8,000 employees.