Cover Story

Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms, Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation and Hawaii Ag Foundation
Image: hoopilioahu.com

Boss GMO

Filling the space left by pineapple and sugar, a new plantation economy--based on experimental seed corn--has taken root. But why take up precious acreage where we could be growing food?

Hawaii is the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered (GE) seed corn, which is now our state’s number one crop, according to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA), but few citizens fully understand what this means. The issues surrounding corn seed encompass everything from the labeling of foods containing GE ingredients (currently not required in the US) to land and water rights and local and organic food production. The voices in this story are diverse and not always in agreement, but the common denominator for all is that a working vocabulary is needed for this complicated evolution in agriculture, so that all citizens may address it with an informed dialogue.

Our ability to feed ourselves may depend on it.


Among the most influential voices in Hawaii’s biotech debate are those of a local farmer and a Monsanto executive, both of whom have emerged as leaders in an agricultural scene where seed corn is heir apparent to the plantations of yore.

When Dean Okimoto’s father returned from serving in the 100th Infantry Battalion in World War II, he bought some farmland in Waimanalo. That was in 1953, and in 1983, Okimoto returned to that land to help his family farm papaya, guava, green onions, daikon, herbs, greens and beets. A couple of years earlier, in 1981, Fred Perlak began working for Monsanto.

Fast-forward 30 years: Dean Okimoto oversees Nalo Farms and serves as president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation (HFBF). He’s also on the board of the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation, a non-profit organization that partnered with Monsanto and Island Palm Communities on the newly founded Kunia Ag Park, dedicated to leasing acreage to farmers growing local food. Perlak is now the vice president of research and business operations for Monsanto Hawaii.

The new plantation

The 10 million pounds of GE seed corn grown in Hawaii, which hosts the largest number of experimental biotech crop trials in the US, is valued at approximately $250 million a year. Almost one in four people who work in agriculture in Hawaii currently work for the seed industry.

Like pineapples and sugar, the GE corn seed produced here is shipped off-island. The difference, however, is that it is not for eating, but instead goes to other research stations. “What we’re doing here is not producing corn for food, but research for food for future generations,” Perlak explains. “It is the building blocks of the new varieties of corn that will be used all around the world.”

The seed industry in Hawaii utilizes approximately 14-15,000 acres annually, of which 7,100 acres are harvested for seed, according to Alan Takemoto, community affairs manager for Monsanto Hawaii. “While this is a large number, to put it into proper perspective, Oahu had 250,000 acres of sugar cane at one time, so this industry currently operates on less than 5 percent of Hawaii’s available cropland,” Takemoto says. Land in Hawaii, with our 12-month growing season, is ideal for the speed and quality of growth the seed industry is looking for.

Monsanto, Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta and BASF, the largest agrochemical companies in the world, have established research stations on the islands of Molokai, Maui, Oahu and Kauai. These “new Big Five” companies are also the members of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA), of which Perlak is president.

Oahu research station

Monsanto Hawaii purchased 2,300 acres of agriculture-zoned land in Kunia from the James Campbell Estate in 2007. They employ 400 people on the Kunia farm and have no more than 700 acres in production at one time. Perlak likens the GE corn seed grown in Hawaii to books in a library: “Corn has the capacity for 50,000 genes in its DNA,” he begins. “What we do when we genetically engineer it is put one more gene among that 50,000. Think of corn DNA as books in the library. We take one book and put it on the shelf of 50,000 books, right where we want it to be. When it’s in the place we want, then that’s what we plant in the field.”

One book on the GE corn shelf is a protein from Bt, a bacteria that secretes an insecticidal toxin.

Local benefit?

Those who oppose the seed industry’s presence in Hawaii complain that the value of the industry is based on dollars received by biotech companies from seed corn sent to research facilities elsewhere, not dollars that go into the Hawaii economy. In addition, biotech companies are operating on prime agricultural land without producing an edible crop, in a state that currently imports 85 percent of its food. “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.

A few years ago, Achitoff litigated against Monsanto and other companies testing biotech pharmaceutical crops in Hawaii. In 2006, a federal judge ruled that the US government did not follow proper procedure in allowing the Hawaii trials. Achitoff is currently involved in lawsuits challenging the approval of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets and alfalfa nationally, on grounds that include the increased use of pesticides on these crops.

The seed/pesticide package

Monsanto, which invented the herbicide Agent Orange, produces the popular weedkiller Roundup and has developed GE Roundup Ready crops that are resistant to the herbicide. Roundup Ready GE corn can thrive while plants around it are killed by the herbicide.

Virtually all GE crops are designed to either produce or sell pesticides, which makes good business sense, since Monsanto and other agrochemical companies have long been involved in pesticide production, Achitoff says. “Monsanto had a patent on Roundup until 2000, and it was their flagship product,” he recalls. “They developed Roundup Ready crops to sell farmers more Roundup, and it’s been a huge success on that level. No one plants Roundup Ready crops unless they also plan to douse it with Roundup.”

A recent study by Dr. Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, drawing on data from the USDA, found that GE crops have actually increased overall pesticide use in the US by 318.4 million pounds over the first 13 years on the marketplace (1996-2008). Other studies have found that excessive reliance on GE seeds and accompanying sprays have stimulated the evolution of pesticide-resistant super weeds.

Opponents of open field GE crops say that the seed industry relies on very high levels of synthetic chemicals to eliminate pests and fertilizers because GE seed crops need to be grown in an almost sterile environment. “Because they are producing a ‘non-food’ crop, regulators allow seed growers to use harder pesticides,” Achitoff explains. “After planting, the fields are then left fallow for large parts of the year, leaving the fields vulnerable to erosion and runoff of polluted soil.”

Dispensing funds

Hector Valenzuela, professor and vegetable crops extension specialist for the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), contends that federal and state funds that have been devoted to promote biotechnology are in part due to the corporate influence of the biotech and agrochemical industry on local policy makers, government officials and university administrators. Valenzuela says we need to examine Monsanto Hawaii’s recent generosity to local academia and others in powerful institutions.

UH–Manoa has received $500,000 from Monsanto Hawaii to establish the Monsanto Research Fellows Fund, enabling scholarship recipients to pursue careers in plant breeding and as future leaders in the agriculture industry. CTAHR received $20,000 from Monsanto Hawaii’s philanthropic arm to support salaries and materials for “Gene-ius Day,” in which Hawaii public school students get exposure to basic aspects of biological science when they attend a day visiting labs at UH-Manoa where they participate in a range of activities, including extracting DNA from fruit samples.

Asked whether there’s a conflict of interest, “Monsanto has attached no requirements in terms of proprietary issues or advancing their specific agenda in Hawaii to any funds they have donated to UH,” says Dr. Ania Wieczorek, founder and director of Gene-ius Day. “The scholarship funds donated by Monsanto can be used to fund graduate students addressing any aspects of crop development, production and pest management. Even students conducting their work in organic agriculture could benefit from the fund.”

In addition to educational research, Monsanto has provided the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii with annual grants totaling $110,000 since 2005, according to Ed Misaki, the Conservancy’s Molokai program director.

HDOA Chairperson Russell Kokubun, a former state senator, received $1,000 from Monsanto during his 2010 campaign. Kokubun said that financial support from these companies will never affect his actions in government. He added that he does see the seed industry as a sustainable practice, however. “It’s globally sustaining. Corn is needed for biofuels, animal feed and food for third world countries. Also, these companies are trying to support local food production. A good example is Monsanto’s Kunia Ag Park,” Kokubun said.

Big ag’s small ag

The Hawaii Ag Foundation chooses farmers to whom they’ll sublease lots within the 182-acre Kunia Ag Park. It is on federal land, so the sub-leases are year-to-year. Wendy Gady, who is overseeing the application process, says that the primary crops grown on the land will be fruits and vegetables. “Farmers are not growing any corn of any kind on the land, so they are not in danger of GMO contamination,” she says. Dean Okimoto says they have picked five farmers to tend over 10 acres each, and should be up and operating within the next month.

Okimoto says the Ag park is a test project, and they hope it will be successful in showing that not only is there room for everyone here, but that Big Ag can support local food production. “Ulupono Initiative will help evaluate the farmers’ viability and make sure they are profitable. We will give these farmers all the tools possible to be successful, and a lot of the preliminary costs getting the land ready have already been taken care of by Monsanto. Hopefully this will be an example of how we can work together and be collaborative as an Ag community.” Ulupono declined to comment.

Food insecurity

Gary Maunakea-Froiseth, of Mao Farms in Waianae, finds a problem–a real disconnect–with the Kunia Ag Park scenario. “What is offered are short term leases, or leases with termination clauses,” Maunakea-Froiseth notes. “No one can farm sustainably under these conditions. A short-term lease is laughable when you try to get a bank line of credit. Those that are desperate take [them], but short term leases are a losing game.” Maunakea-Froiseth predicts that the continued industrialization of ag in Hawaii, with GMO seed producers buying up large tracts of land, will eventually kill off small farms because farmers will need to own land in order to produce sustainably.

Okimoto disagrees. “Small Ag survives because of Big Ag taking care of infrastructure and making land that they can afford available for small farmers to sublease.” He believes the seed corn industry is a positive for food security and food safety. “The research done in Hawaii affects 95 percent of the corn crops across the world. We are affecting food production worldwide.”

Enviro health

The still-unknown, long-term impacts of GE foods and crops remain a major point of contention. “As far as I know, not one refereed study has been conducted in Hawaii to evaluate the health or environmental impact of the [genetically modified] GM crops grown in the state,” says Valenzuela. Food safety advocates worry about the unknown health impacts of these crops grown in heavy chemicals and sold for human consumption, not to mention the possibility of allergic reactions when genes from an unrelated animal or plant are spliced into a food without being identified. “Certainly, no ‘post-marketing’ health safety studies have been conducted because GM crops are not labeled in the US,” Valenzuela says. “The public has the right to be concerned and ask questions.”

Past lessons

In the 1960s, Okimoto says, our state’s “food production was over 60 percent locally grown.” But “when the production of the plantations started dropping, the local food production also started dropping,” Okimoto recalls. “As the plantations went out the small farmers’ costs went up, because when pallets of farm supplies come in for big ag operations, that helps the prices go down for what small farmers need.” As recently as 1982, Hawaii was self-sufficient in milk. By 2008, the last dairy on Oahu shut down, leaving residents dependent on imported milk.

Kokubun surmises that, in addition to complicated leases and the fading of the plantation era, the booming tourism industry contributed to reduced local food production. “Working for the tourism industry was a steady paycheck with good benefits,” he relates. “Many locals chose that instead of growing food because it was less risky and food became more easily imported.”

Okimoto sees this as a reminder that “we need to be collaborative as an industry in order to move forward.”

Nevertheless, many organic farmers have complained of Monsanto lawsuits against them for patent infringement when its GE pollen contaminated their crops. Now the tide may be turning. Nearly 300,000 organic farmers filed suit in March 2011, challenging Monsanto’s right to sue if its GE seed or pollen drifts onto their land. And a Canadian farmer sued by Monsanto turned the tables, making the company pay back the $660 it had cost him to uproot their invasive GE plants. In July 2011, a Minnesota court let organic farmers sue for contamination of their crops by pesticides drifting from neighboring farms. The court found that letting chemicals cross property lines is trespassing. Can genes be far behind?

–With additional reporting and research by Ashley L. Angello