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Few topics in Hawaii are as divisive as seed corporations. In 2013 and 2014, the conflict over GMOs in Hawaii was covered by lengthy articles in the New York Times. Hawaii was depicted as ground zero for conflict over GMOs.
Most debates over seed corporations in Hawaii spiral out to broader questions of food safety and environmental impact. This happened during a December 2012 GMOs debate hosted by Insights on PBS Hawaii. These are important and polarizing questions, but they are not the focus of this post.
Instead, I highlight the characteristics of Hawaii, seed corporations, and seed corn that caused seed corn to become the most powerful agricultural industry in the state. I hope that this post can provide insights into this controversial industry.
I began my undergraduate education in Iowa at Grinnell College where I researched corn farmers and seed corn. I researched seed corn in Hawaii for my MA thesis in the Geography Department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. This post is based on research for that thesis which I began in the Fall of 2011 and then continued in collaboration with Krisnawati Suryanata, my advisor at UHM.
Hybrid seed corn improvement is a labor and time-intensive undertaking, and I will briefly describe this process in order to show what brought seed corn to Hawaii in the first place.
Hybrid corn is made by crossing two inbred “parent” lines of corn. Inbred lines are created after corn is self-pollinated for six or seven generations. Self-pollination occurs when the pollen from a corn plant’s tassels are used to pollinate the silks of the same plant.
Corn breeders then must mix, match, and test different combinations of inbred “parent” lines before they can land on a commercially viable variety of hybrid corn. Since developing a new hybrid corn variety requires seven or more generations of reproduction, an off-season nursery could provide major benefits, and this is the role that Hawaii fills.
The founding father of seed corn in Hawaii is UHM Professor James L. Brewbaker. He first experimented with raising seed corn in the 1960s before helping to found the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association in 1969. Back then, Hawaii’s seed corn industry consisted of 500 acres of land mostly on Molokai.
A few seed companies such as the Funk Brothers used Hawaii as a winter nursery. They sent their most promising seed corn to Hawaii where it was grown over the winter before being shipped back to the Midwest. This doubled the speed at which seed businesses could improve corn, but it was also expensive.
In the early 1990s, Monsanto began plowing unprecedented funds into researching genetically modified traits. The idea of modifying plants to resist Monsanto’s top-selling glyphosate (Round-up) herbicide or getting crops to produce their own insecticide (Bt) seemed far-fetched at the time. Monsanto developed these GM traits, but struggled to monetize them, so they decided they needed to own not just the traits but also the seeds.
In the late 1990s, Monsanto spent $6.5 billion to acquire some of the largest seed companies in the world. Once Monsanto had GM traits, agrochemicals, and conventional seed research under the same corporate umbrella, other corporations sought to emulate the Monsanto model.
In 1999, DuPont purchased Pioneer for $9.4 billion, and seed companies continued to be snapped up by massive corporations. Fewer and fewer corporations have increased their share of the seed market, and this concerning trend of market consolidation continues to this day.
As seed corporations grew increasingly massive, so too did their research budgets. Instead of just a winter nursery, seed corporations began to invest in year-round nurseries. Hawaii was the preeminent location for year-round seed corn nurseries when seed corporations sought to expand these nurseries in the late 1990s and 2000s.
Hawaii’s advantages went beyond just having a climate where corn could be grown between three and four times per year. United States intellectual property laws were already in place, and employees could be persuaded to relocate to Hawaii.
The political and economic conditions in Hawaii were also favorable. The sugar barons had built irrigation ditches that diverted the water from the rainy windward side to the sunny leeward side of most islands. By the 1990s, sugar and pineapple plantations were in rapid decline. This created large uninterrupted plots of irrigated farmland that was available for seed corporations to expand their year-round nurseries in Hawaii.
There was also an attractive labor force of former plantation workers and recent Filipino immigrants. Agricultural scientists could also be recruited from graduates of UHM’s agricultural college. In addition, the winter nurseries and HCIA provided a foundation for industry growth.
Seed corporations were embraced by politicians and business leaders as a model industry for Hawaii. Then Gov. Neil Abercrombie conveyed these sentiments to HCIA during an address on May 16th, 2011. He said, “Many of the people in this room today represent the seed industry, which is I think the new foundation and basis for agricultural prosperity in the state.”
Up until the 1990s, the only way that crop breeders could improve a plant was to observe how it performed in the field, but that is no longer the case because of advances in molecular biology. Using a technique called marker assisted selection, crop breeders can make decisions based on a plant’s DNA.
The initial costs of setting up a molecular plant breeding program are high. You need a team of scientists that can identify desirable sections of plant DNA. After these sections are located, scientists identify mutations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”) that they can use as a marker. With markers in place, crop breeders can send potential seeds to automated seed chippers that read and produce data for each kernel’s DNA. Using this data, crop breeders can analyze a spreadsheet to give each kernel a score and decide if it should be replanted or discontinued.
Even with marker-assisted selection, crop breeders still need to send corn to the Midwest to see how it performs, but they can do more of the improvement in year-round nurseries. This technique also enables crop breeding to be done with more precision and new lines to be developed quicker. Using marker assisted selection, an inbred line can be developed in three generations instead of six.
Seed corporations were embraced by politicians and business leaders as a model industry for Hawaii.
For seed corporations, the primary goal of growing corn in Hawaii is to carry out seed corn improvement, but they also conduct seed corn increase — where they ramp up production if there are shortfalls elsewhere — and grow-out fields where they monitor the quality of existing lines. Additionally, a small fraction of Hawaii’s seed crop industry, 3 percent in 2015, is for other crops besides corn.
Hawaii’s nurseries are in a seed corporation’s crop improvement division, which is distinct from the GM trait division and pesticide division. Although GM traits are integrated into corn plants and agrochemicals are applied by pest managers, GM traits and agrochemicals are developed closer to corporate or scientific hubs like Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
Seed corporations continue to test the limits of crop improvement. Emerging techniques such as genome editing, doubled haploid production, and tissue cultures raise new possibilities for crop improvement, but also new concerns about the ability for regulations to keep up with these rapid developments.
In Hawaii, opposition to GMOs gathered momentum in the 2000s. UHM’s agricultural college introduced commercial varieties of GM papaya in the late 1990s and sought to patent several varieties of taro in the early 2000s. Activists began to mobilize against university crop scientists, and a law was passed in 2007 to establish a Taro Security and Purity Research Program. Seed corporations remained largely unresponsive to the growing concern about GMOs that soon coalesced against them.
A coalition of environmental, Native Hawaiian and local food activists began to pursue legislation at the county and state level that targeted seed corporations. Groups like Hawaii SEED helped to organize mobilization, and the disagreement over these initiatives grew contentious, particularly on Kauai.
In 2013, nearly a thousand attended a meeting for a bill targeting seed corporations on Kauai with supporters of the bill wearing red and opponents wearing blue. The bill was passed later that year after a staggering 18-hour County Council session that concluded around 3:30 a.m.
Kauai County Mayor Ben Carvalho vetoed the bill and subsequently received death threats. The Kauai County Council overrode the mayor’s veto, but the law was eventually overturned after federal courts ruled that the County Council was preempted by state law.
One product of the Kauai Council bill was the creation of a Joint Fact Finding Group, which released a detailed report in May 2016. Although a third of the nine-member group resigned, this report provides thorough analysis of environmental and health issues associated with seed corporations in Hawaii.
Similar to Kauai, a ballot initiative in Maui was passed but subsequently overturned after a federal court ruled that state and federal jurisdiction takes precedence over county laws for agricultural regulations. Although these county laws were ultimately overturned, they tarnished Hawaii’s image as a welcoming place for seed corporations. Mobilization in Hawaii also contributed to the political climate in which President Obama signed a national GMO Labeling law in July 2016.
According to the USDA, the value of Hawaii’s seed crop industry increased five times over from $48 million in 2005 to $242 million in 2011. By 2014, the value had plummeted to $141 million but there was a modest rebound the following year to $151 million.
Unlike other agricultural industries like papaya or coffee, the value of the seed crop industry is based on seed corporation’s estimates of their operating expenses. Seed corn is simply too far removed from commercial corn to accurately estimate its commercial value.
The amount of land used by seed corporations is also more complicated than other agricultural industries. The official statistics only report acreage in use, which was 4,000 acres in 2015, but seed corn nurseries only use a fraction of their acreage at a time. Back when I was conducting my research in 2013, insiders estimated that the size of the industry was 25,000 acres.
Although Hawaii’s year-round industry recently decreased, seed corporations have already established year-round nurseries in Chile, Brazil and Puerto Rico. As a United States territory, Puerto Rico has a strong claim to replacing Hawaii as the preeminent location for year-round seed corn nurseries. Sociologist Annabel Ipsen finds that in contrast to Hawaii, seed corporations in Puerto Rico “are lauded as economic engines of development.”
With or without Hawaii, seed corporations will continue to improve seed seeds in year-round nurseries. Events like the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria could cause more seed production to shift back to Hawaii. While new crop improvement techniques could make year-round nurseries superfluous, the more likely trajectory is a continuation of the status quo.
The seed corporations in Hawaii are resolved to maintain their operations and given their staunch opposition, seed corporations appear destined to remain a divisive issue for the foreseeable future.
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