Quick. Name Hawaii’s most valuable agricultural product.

If you said sugar, you’re wrong. Pineapple? Nope.

It’s not fruit, it’s not vegetables, not nuts, not flowers and not trees.

The answer: seeds.

Seed crops — primarily seed corn — have shot to the top of the list in recent years, despite a push toward food self-sufficiency and energy independence that require locally-grown plants.

Seed crops in Hawaii were valued at more than $175 million [pdf] in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Unprocessed sugarcane came in next with about $44 million, followed by macadamia nuts and coffee. But the seeds required less land than any of those products.

(Pineapple is not listed because to do so would disclose the value of individual companies. Hawaii Department of Agriculture Public Information Officer Janelle Saneishi said pineapple would likely come in second or third, right in front of or behind sugar.)

Some of the largest seed crop companies in the world — Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto — have established themselves here.

Hawaii’s year-round growing conditions help the companies make up the difference they pay in shipping and the high cost of leasing or owning land by allowing three or four crop cycles. And because Hawaii is still part of America’s stable political system, it’s more appealing than locations in Central or South America, said Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a nonprofit trade association representing the agricultural seed industry.

“Some of the value-added areas of the seed industry in Hawaii is that they’re keeping important agricultural lands in ag use,” Maluafiti said when asked what benefits the state sees from the industry’s heavy presence here. “There’s a lot more money to be made to be used those lands for alternative purposes. Our commitment is to keeping that space green and open and in viable ag, and the seed industry is doing that.”

The seed companies also provide 2,000 local jobs and maintain irrigation systems and other infrastructure needed to ensure that agriculture can continue here, she said. The most recent Hawaii Seed Crop Industry economic report [pdf], published in July 2009, provides deeper insight into the exponential financial growth.

But the seed industry is not without controversy. Genetically modified organisms have drawn fire from environmentalists who say the products are untested and could have unidentified health risks. Websites like the Non-GMO Project and Say No To GMOs highlight those concerns. Various media outlets have reported that the spread of pesticide-resistant crops has led to pesticide-resistant “superweeds” and some worry the arms race is just getting started.

But the “frankenfoods hysteria” — exemplified by the recent suspected sabotage of 8,500 genetically modified papaya trees near Hilo — is bad for Hawaii, says Dr. James Brewbaker, one of the forefathers of the seed industry here and a professor of horticulture and genetics in the University of Hawaii Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences.

“The seed industry is assuredly one of the best things that’s ever happened to Hawaii’s agriculture, and immensely timely with the decline of sugar and pine,” Brewbaker said in an email. “And it’s about genetic improvement using all available tools (of which transgenes are a small part).”

Maluafiti says the seeds will be an important part of feeding the world in the centuries to come, and that the companies have their eye on global food issues. People are starving in Third World countries and face further challenges like population growth and climate change. Crops engineered to be drought-tolerant and saltwater-tolerant are the wave of the future and a better option than clear-cutting the world’s forests, she said.

But what about Hawaii’s desire to grow its own food, here and now?

Hawaii grows approximately 15 percent of its food today, according to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Food Self Sufficiency Report [pdf]. In the 2050 Issue Book [pdf], a pair of UH professors wrote that approaching food self sufficiency would require 243,000 acres devoted to crop growth for local consumption. By means of comparison, 92,000 acres were used for crops in 2008, but the vast majority of that total was being used for exports like sugar, pineapple, coffee and macadamia nuts.

Seed crops require far fewer acres to generate revenue. In generating $176.6 million in 2008-2009, seed crops covered 5,930 acres [pdf]. At its apex, the sugar industry used 145,000 acres in 1933 [pdf]. In 2008, sugarcane (40,000 acres), macadamia nuts (17,000 acres) and coffee (7,800 acres) each used more land than seed crops [pdf] and together created just a fraction of seeds’ income.

Seeds’ small physical footprint here means there is still plenty of land available to farmers who want to grow food for Hawaii residents, Maluafiti says.

“They are not displacing farmers who are growing food for Hawaii. The seed industry isn’t the reason farmers aren’t able to stay in business,” she said. “They are being part of the solution” by leasing land to small farmers and by otherwise being good corporate citizens, she said.

Despite the focus on locally grown food, a flood of new farmers hasn’t emerged in part because the profession requires long hours, hard work and often offers low pay.

DISCUSSION How can Hawaii increase the supply of locally-grown food and fuel? Join the conversation on agriculture in Hawaii

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