KAUNAKAKAI, MOLOKAI — Samson Kaahanui wakes up every weekday on the Hoolehua homestead, pulls on a neon long-sleeved shirt and goes to work in the GMO seed corn fields of central Molokai.
The shirt protects his skin from the sun, and helps him stay visible to tractor drivers as he whacks weeds amid high stalks of corn.
His job is not easy, but Kaahanui is grateful for it.
Work is hard to come by on Molokai. The unemployment rate is nearly double the state average, hovering around 9 percent.
And Mycogen Seeds, part of Dow AgroSciences, pays well compared to many other businesses on the island of about 7,300 people, allowing Kaahanui to support his wife and six of his eight children who still live at home.
But his job may be in jeopardy.
A Maui County voter initiative targeting genetically modified organisms — GMOs — seeks to ban their cultivation until the county studies their effects. The initiative reflects growing fears statewide about the environmental and health impacts of biotechnology in agriculture.
On Molokai, where seed corn production is the biggest industry, the ballot measure threatens hundreds of jobs.
Monsanto and Mycogen Seeds are the largest employers, with about 240 workers out of a total island workforce of 2,400.
Although it’s unclear what the companies will do if the initiative becomes law, state economist Eugene Tian said that if the industry collapses, Molokai’s unemployment rate could jump to more than 18 percent.
And while the island has the most to lose, it’ll have the least say come November.
Maui County also contains Lanai and Maui, which have about 20 times more people than Molokai. According the SHAKA Movement, the group behind the voter initiative, more than 19,000 people signed the petition putting the bill on the ballot — only about 300 were Molokai residents.
That doesn’t mean everyone else here will vote “no.” There are concerns about GMOs even among some of the people who desperately want Monsanto and Mycogen to stay. And anti-GMO activists argue that if the ban is approved, the companies could switch to other types of farming on Molokai.
Still, Kaahanui has been telling his family to register and vote because he doesn’t want to lose his job.
He shakes his head thinking about what could happen.
“We’ve already been through it with the (Molokai) Ranch,” he said.
Molokai Ranch, the island’s largest private landowner, used to be its biggest employer. But after residents rejected the company’s plans to build 200 luxury homes at Laau Point, the ranch shut down its beachside vacation homes, high-end lodge, the island’s only movie theater and the only gas station on the west side.
The closures in 2008 put 120 people out of work, including Kaahanui, who was a heavy equipment operator, and his wife Claudette, a waitress at the lodge.
The island’s unemployment rate shot up from 6.2 percent in 2007 to 13.7 percent in 2009.
The couple scrambled to make ends meet. They stopped making payments on their van; it was repossessed. They sold their belongings, including Kaahanui’s prized canoe. They began catching and selling squid.
“We lost everything,” said Claudette.
Kaahanui remembers the embarrassment of lining up to get his unemployment check, feeling people’s eyes on him and wondering if they thought he was lazy.
He didn’t like it, but he didn’t have a choice. “You gotta survive,” he said.
Claudette misses her job. Back then, the town of Maunaloa was lively, and residents came from all over the island to watch movies.
“That was the happening spot,” she said.
The lodge now sits empty, cobwebs climbing over collapsing wooden steps leading to empty rooms.
Christmas lights, their bulbs yellowed with age, are still wrapped around trees lining the sidewalk outside hotel rooms.
“It’s a ghost town,” said Kaahanui. “Plenty crime.”
You could call Molokai the anti-Waikiki.
Absent are the high rises and hordes of cars, tourists and homeless people that have come to define Oahu. Here there’s just one hotel with 52 rooms, half-empty much of the year.
The island’s main road has no traffic signals and only two lanes. It stretches from the dry west to the lush east, where it shrinks to a single lane snaking around steep cliffs and lonely beaches.
Many buildings are mementoes of the pineapple days, when Dole and Del Monte plantations employed hundreds and helped build the towns of Maunaloa and Kaunakakai.
The last plantation closed in 1988. Since then, the community has struggled to find a new economic driver that’s in line with its values.
In a 1981 survey, Molokai residents ranked family togetherness, a rural lifestyle and a slow pace as their top priorities for the community. Jobs came in seventh. A 2008 study found that little had changed.
Over the years, community members have protested everything from the airport’s expansion to proposed wind farms. In 2011, residents waved signs saying “Go home” when a 36-passenger cruise ship sought to dock.
“Don’t change Molokai, let Molokai change you,” reads a popular bumper sticker.
But the cost of rejecting development has been steep.
About a third of the residents rely on food stamps, double the rate on Maui and triple that on Oahu. Molokai’s unemployment rate has also consistently been higher than on other Hawaiian islands:
The island is littered with decaying remnants of businesses that gave up.
At the now-shuttered Kaluakoi Hotel and Golf Course, once part of the Sheraton hotel chain, fairways lie unused, blue and red tee box markers barely visible in overgrown grass.
Some mornings, a man comes and hits a few golf balls to be lost among the high yellow weeds.
While tourism on Molokai has stumbled, the island’s seed corn industry has expanded since the first companies came to the island in the 1960s, lured by year-round growing seasons.
Statewide, Hawaii’s seed corn industry has expanded exponentially since the early 1990s. It’s now worth $243 million and seed is the state’s biggest export crop, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Monsanto acquired seed companies in Hawaii in 1997 and has made the state an essential part of its operations.
On Molokai, Monsanto is the biggest employer with about 140 workers. The company owns 144 acres and leases 2,100 acres, farming from 400 to 600 acres a year. Its focus here is on growing new varieties of corn and moving them through successive generations to become a commercial crop.
It can take 13 years and $130 million for a new type of seed corn to get from the lab to the market, said Ray Foster, the company’s farm manager on Molokai.
Monsanto separates its rectangular fields by 650 feet so they don’t cross-pollinate, using Norfolk pines and native plants to break the wind between the crops. Orange fences line the fields to stop wild deer from eating the corn.
“I never did hold one solid job down until I came and worked for Monsanto.” — Maka Makaiwi
Foster remembers when the same fields were full of pineapples. He was the last field manager at Del Monte Molokai before it closed. He thinks seed corn is better-suited to the land.
“For Hawaii, you couldn’t design a better crop,” Foster said.
Mycogen Seeds on Molokai is smaller, with about 100 workers. About a third are permanent employees; the rest are seasonal or temporary workers.
The company farms about 400 acres a year and focuses on breeding and testing new types of seeds.
Jill Coomes, a plant biologist at Mycogen Seeds, spends most of her days in a lab where she splices and blends genes, seeking the best combinations to increase crop yields or make the plants more resistant to pesticides or drought.
She then grows the seeds and observes them over three- to four-month seasons, covering the ears with bags and pollinating them by hand to ensure they stay genetically pure. After about a year, she sends the seeds to the mainland for more testing.
“If this dirt does contain pesticides, is that the right price to pay for jobs? I don’t know.” —Teri Waros, Molokai bookstore owner
Like Kaahanui, Coomes is afraid of what will happen if her job is banned. Because her husband hasn’t been able to find full-time work on Molokai, she’s the primary breadwinner for their two young children. While she grows papayas, avocados and vegetables at home, she knows it’s not enough to feed everyone.
Neither Monsanto nor Mycogen Seeds has said whether it will leave Molokai if the ballot initiative passes. But officials from both emphasize genetically modified farming is at the core of their business models, and Mycogen Seeds has said it would seriously consider shutting down.
Foster doesn’t know what Monsanto would do, but he gets angry when he thinks about the possibility of the company leaving.
“I lived through a plant closure, and I know what it’s like for 300 people to lose their jobs overnight,” he said.
Last time, getting laid off meant he left the island for a while. He’s not sure what he would do if it happens again.
When tractors plow the seed corn fields, red dirt swirls into the air, caught by trade winds that flow over Kaunakakai, a town with one- and two-story buildings reminiscent of the plantation era.
Teri Waros, who owns a bookstore on the three blocks that make up downtown Molokai in Kaunakakai, watches the dust swirl on some days and wonders what’s in it.
Waros is friends with Foster, and doesn’t want him or anyone else to lose their jobs. But she thinks perhaps the ban is necessary to force a study of the environmental and health effects of GMO farming.
“If this dirt does contain pesticides, is that the right price to pay for jobs?” she said. “I don’t know.”
Despite so many residents having ties to the seed industry, the public debate over GMOs on Molokai has been subdued. Some people research GMOs on the Internet and are scared by what they read. Monsanto’s corporate history doesn’t help: The company is infamous for manufacturing chemicals like DDT and Agent Orange and inflicting environmental damage.
But even if Molokai residents fear Monsanto, the issue isn’t black and white with so many jobs on the line.
What is clear is that if the companies leave, many other businesses will be affected.
Tina Tamanaha, 58, has been running Molokai’s farming cooperative known as Hikiola for more than 20 years.
Fifty percent of the co-op’s sales are to the seed companies. If the companies leave, Tamanaha thinks she may have to lay off up to six of her eight employees.
Lately, dinner conversations with her daughter have revolved around whether they should sell their home and move away.
The situation reminds her of when she was in high school, sitting around the kitchen table talking about how her family would survive after pineapple companies left. She wonders how much more economic hardship the island can take.
“We’re lucky to be raised here, we are,” she said. “But I’m not sure if that’s what I want for my grandkids.”
On Saturday mornings, tents line one sidewalk of downtown Molokai, shading local entrepreneurs selling produce, plants, food, T-shirts and souvenirs.
Kupuna wearing colorful mumus sit and chat under benches in the shade of the storefronts while children and teenagers help their parents greet customers.
As noon approaches, 26-year-old Teon Sawyer packs up her booth where she sells clothing from her family business, Haku Designs Molokai.
Sawyer knows the island needs jobs, but she’s worried about how pesticides used by the biotechnology companies are affecting the environment, especially given that about a third of Molokai residents rely on subsistence farming.
“Is it really worth it to endanger our future and our kids’ ability to be able to live off the land?” she said. “It’s going to be a sacrifice no matter what.”
Mercy Ritte feels the same way. The 30-year-old mother of three lives on the Hoolehua homestead about a mile from Monsanto’s fields, and but never paid much attention to the company until spring of 2011, when a dust storm gave her 6-month-old son a bad cough that sent him to the emergency room.
After writing to Monsanto and receiving a generic reply, Ritte formed the MOM Hui, a group of mothers who are worried about how GMOs and pesticides may be affecting their kids’ health. The group leads marches and holds educational events, and now has chapters throughout the Hawaiian islands.
Compared with the pineapple plantation days, Monsanto and Mycogen Seeds use far fewer dangerous pesticides that are more highly regulated. — Department of Agriculture Chairman Scott Enright
The Shaka Movement has claimed autism and cancer are potential side effects of GMO farming and its associated pesticide use. Still, state and global regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization have found no specific harmful health results from genetically modified food.
Part of Ritte’s concern is that the state hasn’t done any studies of the biotech companies’ pesticide use on Molokai.
Despite that, Department of Agriculture Chairman Scott Enright said he’s confident that a study would find pesticides haven’t exceeded harmful levels, based on similar analyses on other islands. Compared with the pineapple plantation days, Monsanto and Mycogen Seeds use far fewer dangerous pesticides that are more highly regulated, Enright said.
In response to community concerns, Monsanto signed a memorandum of understanding with Maui County in December agreeing to abide by pesticide use rules and submit reports on its use of restricted pesticides.
That’s not enough for Ritte, who points out that the MOU has no legal consequences. “It sounded good but it basically did nothing,” she said.
Her activism on Molokai has been met with suspicion, even vitriol; less than two dozen people showed up to her first Occupy Monsanto event, and she said she was flamed on Facebook.
She knows the voter initiative is dividing families, and is sensitive to biotech employees who don’t want to lose their livelihoods.
But she thinks the ban may be necessary because the companies have stonewalled much less intrusive proposals to require GMO food labeling, create buffer zones for pesticide spraying, or request more disclosure of when and how they are using chemicals.
Mercy’s father-in-law, 69-year-old Walter Ritte, agrees. A lifelong Native Hawaiian activist, he thinks policymakers should help shift the island’s economy to growing local food, rather than seed corn.
Like other Molokai residents, he compares the economic significance of the potential collapse of the biotechnology industry to the closure of the pineapple companies and the shutdown of Molokai Ranch. But he’s confident the island would bounce back.
“We’ve survived it before,” he said. “And this time we can prepare.”
That’s small comfort for Monsanto and Mycogen Seeds farm workers who have families to feed.
On June 30, dozens of the workers lined up under the hot sun outside the county building in downtown Molokai to testify on the initiative through video-conferencing with the Maui County Council. Some stayed as late as 10:30 p.m. to urge policymakers to discard the proposal.
Council members decided to table the issue, but still have until next month to enact the ban themselves. If they don’t, it will appear on the November ballot.
Nationally, Monsanto is the third-most hated corporation, just behind British Petroleum and Bank of America, according to a Harris Poll measuring corporate reputations.
But on Molokai, the company has weaved itself into the fabric of the community, winning the support of teachers and conservationists by donating sweet potatoes to local schoolchildren and sponsoring the rehabilitation of endangered birds.
Its makeup is representative of the island, too: Nearly all of its employees here are permanent Molokai residents, and almost two-thirds are Native Hawaiian.
Monsanto employee Maka Makaiwi has beaten the odds. As a Native Hawaiian man, he’s more likely to be in prison than a person of nearly any other race in Hawaii, and because he lives on Molokai, he’s got a higher chance of being jobless.
Makaiwi narrowly escaped reinforcing the statistics: He used to make his living selling drugs.
“I never did hold one solid job down until I came and worked for Monsanto,” he said.
Over 13 years, he went from a seasonal worker to a full-time machine operator. He uses his income to support his nine kids, including one born in June.
“If I lose my job, what I gonna do, go back to dealing drugs?” he asked. “I got my kids to think about.”
Last month he was eating lunch with his coworkers at Elsa’s Restaurant downtown when two tourists saw their Monsanto shirts and called them an “evil empire” before driving away in a rental car.
Working at Monsanto is Makaiwi’s first real job. He never thought he’d be worried about losing it.
Over the years, he’s seen many of his friends move away because of the bad economy.
But Makaiwi can’t imagine doing that.
“When you are born on Molokai, Molokai is born in you,” he said.