The tiny island state 2,500 miles from the nearest continent is so critical to the nation’s modern corn-growing business that the industry’s leading companies all have farms here, growing new varieties genetically engineered for desirable traits like insect and drought resistance.
But these same farms have become a flash point in a spreading debate over genetic engineering in agriculture.
Kauai and Hawaii counties have moved in the past several months to regulate genetically modified organisms and the pesticides the farms use. In Maui County, a group is collecting signatures for a potential ballot measure that would impose a temporary ban on the crops.
“People are very concerned, and it’s my job as a council member to determine whether those concerns are valid and take steps to protect them,” said Gary Hooser, a councilman in Kauai.
Buffer ZonesHooser and the council passed a law last year, over the mayor’s veto, to require large farms to create buffer zones around their crops and to disclose what pesticides they use. The law is set to take effect in August.
Seed companies with Kauai operations — Syngenta, Pioneer, BASF and Agrigentics — have sued the county to stop the law, saying they already are regulated by state and federal laws and there is no need for additional county rules.
“We don’t plant anything that isn’t permitted and approved through the proper regulatory agencies, be it the EPA, the FDA and UDSA,” said Mark Phillipson, the head of Hawaii corporate affairs for Syngenta, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hawaii’s origins as a critical node in corn production dates to the 1960s when James Brewbaker, a recently arrived researcher at the University of Hawaii, noticed he could plant three crops a year in Hawaii’s warm climate instead of one as in most places on the mainland.
Around the same time, Pioneer Hi-Bred was trying to squeeze more research into a year by using greenhouses and farms in Florida. Brewbaker suggested researchers come to Hawaii.
Seed farms grew as research expanded and more land became available as Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple plantations became less competitive in the global market and shut down.
As of 2012, the most recent data available, seed crops in Hawaii were worth $217 million, up from $140 million in 2007. About 95 percent of it is corn. In all, they exceed the value of the state’s next several largest crops — including sugarcane and macadamia nuts."
We saw this brewing during visit in February. It had picked up speed since our first visit in 2012.
It is a real issue.
Follow the money, who will win?
How would you like to see your seed investment dollars spent?