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SPECIAL REPORT: American corn, soybeans born and bred in Hawaii

Pioneer-HI-sunflower
Pioneer sunflower fields, North Shore Oahu (Cindy Goldstein/Pioneer)

A SPECIAL REPORT

Agricultural enterprise thriving in the Aloha State

HONOLULU — Hawaiian agriculture was dominated by sugar and pineapple plantations for more than a century. But as sugar and pineapple fields gave way to golf courses and cheaper foreign competition after World War II, agriculture seemed headed for oblivion.

Instead, Hawaiian agriculture has taken off in two opposite directions: Seed breeding for major commodities grown commercially in the rest of the world, and local and organic production, some of it served in restaurants patronized by President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama.

The American Farm Bureau Federation convention here in early January included tours of Monsanto's facilities and a cooking demonstration by one of Hawaii's renowned local chefs using locally grown food.

Here are portraits of the seed breeding business, local and organic farming, and a guide to the restaurants at which the Obamas have dined
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field
Monsanto soybean researcher Kyle Smith looks over a field.


By JERRY HAGSTROM

KUNIA, Hawaii — Corn and soybeans seem like the most Midwestern of crops, but almost every corn and soybean plant on the mainland of the United States now owes its parentage to research and breeding done here in Hawaii.

That's the message from the big seed companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer, which have research stations near this small town a half hour’s drive from Honolulu and in sight of the skyscraper hotels on Waikiki beach, Diamond Head and the Pacific Ocean, as well as on other islands.

Fred Perlak

Fred Perlak
Hawaii is “critical for corn and soybean breeding,” said Fred Perlak, the vice president for research and business operations at Monsanto’s Hawaii operations.

“The weather here is the real big advantage for us,” Perlak said. “We can literally plant any day out of the year.”

The only disadvantage, he said, is that the work never stops.

“On the mainland you have a rhythm to the seasons,” Perlak said. In Hawaii, he noted, you plant one field one day, and harvest another field the next.

In the case of corn, said a Monsanto scientist, the location is particularly appropriate because the climate is similar to Mexico and Central America, where modern corn originated.

“Hawaii provides us the opportunity to work within the U.S. regulatory system and to have a solid infrastructure for shipping,” added Cindy Goldstein of Pioneer’s Hawaii operations, which focus on corn, soybeans and sunflowers.

Perlak credits Jim Brewbaker, a University of Hawaii plant breeder and geneticist, with bringing the seed industry to Hawaii in the mid 1960s as the sugar and pineapple plantations were waning in the face of cheaper foreign competition and the use of land for hotels and golf courses.

Monsanto acquired a research station here when it bought the DeKalb company. Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta and BASF have also established operations here, and the seed industry — with $250 million in annual revenues — has become the single largest agriculture sector and agriculture employer in the island state.

But it is not without controversy. While the seed industry conducts labor-intensive agricultural research and uses only 14,000 to 15,000 acres of land, compared to the hundreds of thousands of acres that were once used for sugar and pineapple production, environmentalists and local food advocates say they fear the genetic modification involved in some of the research. They also say that the land should be used for local food production.

“These crops employ a small number of biotech specialists and a somewhat larger number of field workers who could just as easily be employed growing food that we can eat,” says Paul Achitoff, a lawyer with Earth Justice, recently told the Honolulu Weekly.

The work done at the research stations is incredibly labor intensive. To keep track of the seeds that are developed, pollination and harvesting is done by hand by a crew of 75 field workers, noted Kyle Smith, the lead soybean researcher for Monsanto.

It may take five to eight years for Pioneer to commercialize seed that is bred in Hawaii at the early stage, added Goldstein.

The seed industry is, however, one half of the picture of modern agriculture in Hawaii. In a state that imports 85 to 90 percent of its food, the other growing industry is local and organic vegetable, fruit and meat production. Monsanto, Pioneer and the other seed companies have gone to great lengths to be model farmers by conserving water and to rent land on the edges of their operations to vegetable farmers.

Although land is expensive, Perlak said he does not view the “strong, buy local movement” as a point of conflict. The only crop the vegetable farmers can’t grow on Monsanto land is corn because that could interfere with the breeding operations, he noted.

The companies are obviously trying to avoid any government actions that would shut them down or interfere with their operations. Bills that the seed industry views as onerous have been introduced in the Hawaii legislature, but Perlak said he does not consider the industry to be “threatened.”

Dean Okimoto

Dean Okimoto
Dean Okimoto, a vegetable farmer who is now president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, noted to the Honolulu Weekly that the vegetable farmers on the Monsanto land are not in danger of contamination from genetic modification because they are not allowed to grow corn.

Okimoto, who has supplied vegetables to the famous restaurants owned by chefs Ray Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, is a revered figure in Hawaii agriculture, but he also serves on the board of the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation, a non-profit organization that partnered with Monsanto and Island Palm Communities on a park to lease land to small farmers.

Okimoto finds himself between the two types of modern Hawaiian agriculture as an advocate for the small farmers who does not oppose genetic modification.
“I don’t want a fight between organic and GMO,” Okimoto said in an interview.

The existence of the seed industry causes emotional difficulty for some local food advocates who are also entrepreneurs themselves.

“From a food security standpoint in this geographically isolated population center, I am opposed to any sort of industry that exports,” said Ed Kenney, the owner of Town, a restaurant patronized by President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama. “But I can’t fault Monsanto, Pioneer or Syngenta. They’ve got to make money.”