Seed industry helps Hawaii agriculture, and economy, grow
Few industries have played as pivotal a role in Hawaii’s history as agriculture. From the days of pineapple and sugarcane, to the modern cultivation of coffee, macadamia nuts and even wine, agriculture has shaped Hawaii’s politics, its economic foundation and its demographics.
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Few industries have played as pivotal a role in Hawaii’s history as agriculture. From the days of pineapple and sugarcane, to the modern cultivation of coffee, macadamia nuts and even wine, agriculture has shaped Hawaii’s politics, its economic foundation and its demographics. Today, Hawaii is again at the forefront of modern agriculture, in particular the seed industry, which is now the state’s leading agricultural activity and agricultural export.
That last point was brought home in economist Dr. Paul Brewbaker’s recent report, “Fifty Years of Corn Seed in the Fiftieth State,” which was commissioned by the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA) to demonstrate the value of the seed industry in Hawaii. (The report is at www.bettercropshawaii.com.)
HCIA is a nonprofit association representing the seed industry, dedicated to promoting modern agriculture here to help farmers and communities succeed. Hawaii’s seed industry reached its zenith in terms of economic impact between 2010 and 2012, when its annual value topped $240 million. However, as Brewbaker’s report details, a global collapse in commodity prices over the past four years reduced that figure to about $150 million for the crop years from 2014 to 2016. A huge part of that was the decline in corn prices from $7 a bushel to $3.50 a bushel since 2012.
Brewbaker believes this downturn of commodities prices likely marks the end of an economic supercycle that could lead to another period of growth for the seed industry — something that will benefit not just the biotech sector, but agriculture in general in the state, as well as the wonderful people and communities that maintain Hawaii’s rich farming legacy.
That would be good news for the economy as a whole. Using a model developed by the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), which measures the economic activity generated by an industry among all counties, Brewbaker determined that the seed industry had a total GDP (gross domestic product) economic impact of $323 million in 2015.
Oahu generated $116 million GDP impact, while Kauai generated $105 million, and Maui and Molokai (combined) generated $102 million. But our impact is also important to look at in human terms. More than 2,700 Hawaii jobs are connected to the seed industry. This includes 1,100 workers employed full-time by the seed companies, 600 part-time and seasonal employees and about a thousand in associated industries.
Still, those figures tell only part of the story. The seed industry differs from conventional agriculture because of its tilt toward research and development of corn variations for crop improvement. In fact, few agricultural or nonagricultural R&D activities in Hawaii’s modern history have so profoundly improved human welfare worldwide, through contributions to productivity growth, as has Hawaii’s corn seed industry. Because of the higher skill level and knowledge demanded of the seed industry’s science-
based jobs, it generates more economic value added per job than conventional agriculture.
There are challenges, of course. The seed industry will likely face more volatility in corn prices in the coming years, and may also deal with the further evolution of crop pathogens and climate change. In addition, anti-GMO activists continue to push their agenda that relies on hearsay and misinformation to discredit the overwhelmingly sound scientific basis of genetically modified organisms.
We understand that skepticism of GMOs remains in regions such as Europe, North America and India. But countries such as Bangladesh, Brazil and China are gradually recognizing that genetically modified crops may be the best way for them to feed their burgeoning populations.
Despite the challenges the industry faces, the report demonstrates that the seed industry continues to positively impact the state, benefiting not only Hawaii’s farming sector, but also its economy as a whole.
Bennette Misalucha is executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association.