Biotech firm grows on Molokai
Environmentalists say they are worried about modified crops
Monsanto Hawaii has expanded its presence through a long-term lease for three agricultural land parcels from Molokai Properties Ltd.
Agricultural expansion draws protest
Monsanto is expanding its presence on Molokai to 1,650 acres, in a move that means more jobs and seed crops for the island -- but also more opposition from environmentalists.
Molokai Properties Ltd., a subsidiary of Singapore-based BIL International Ltd., has granted Monsanto Hawaii a 99-year lease for the agricultural lands.
The company had already been leasing 700 acres; its new lease will result in 500 more acres under cultivation.
But environmentalists, who have challenged the cultivation of genetically modified crops on the lands, say the growing presence is alarming.
Monsanto, a global company specializing in biotech corn seed crops, has entered a 99-year lease for 1,650 acres of land, of which about 1,200 are suitable for farming.
The company had already been leasing 700 acres, and will increase the total under cultivation by 500 acres.
While the expansion means more productivity for Monsanto, as well as more jobs for the island economy, environmental activists -- which include the Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and Hui Ho'opakele Aina -- continue to cry out against the growing presence of genetically modified crops on Molokai. They say the modified crops have not been adequately tested for long-term effects and could cross-pollinate with organic crops.
"It's absolutely scary for us because these chemical companies, Monsanto and Dow, are becoming the main farmers on our island," said Walter Ritte, coordinator of Hui Ho'opakele Aina, a group opposed to genetically modified crops. "We have no protection because the state and the feds are not regulating them to our satisfaction. The fields are right next to our town -- east of the town and west of the town. They surround the town."
The parcels, previously used to grow pineapple, have remained fallow or been used to farm other crops.
Discussions about the lease had been in the works for several months, said Roy Sugiyama, chief operating officer of Molokai Properties, a subsidiary of Singapore-based BIL International Ltd.
Molokai Properties Chief Executive Peter Nicholas said Monsanto Hawaii has agreed to agricultural easements on the leased land, in line with the Community-Based Land Use Master Plan for Molokai Ranch.
"Monsanto has always been a good neighbor and provides much-needed jobs for our community," said Nicholas. "We believe this will be tremendous for the island."
Breaking down the land deal
Tenant: Monsanto Hawaii (formerly Hawaiian Research)
Lease terms: 99-year lease agreement for 1,650 acres on Molokai
Landowner: Molokai Properties Ltd., a subsidiary of Singapore-based BIL International Ltd.
Previous use: Pineapple
Monsanto employees on Molokai: 100 full-time positions, 100 seasonal
Paul Koehler, Monsanto's scientific and community affairs manager, said the long-term lease will allow the company to invest in new equipment.
Monsanto, which has had a presence on Molokai since the mid-'60s, then under the name Hawaiian Research, currently employs about 110 full-time and 80 seasonal employees on Molokai. Statewide it employs 600 full-time and 100 seasonal employees.
But environmental and community activists are battling its growing presence.
In November 2003, Earthjustice filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to comply with federal environmental laws by approving permits, including one to Monsanto, for GMO field tests.
A U.S. District Court judge found last year that the USDA had violated federal environmental laws. The defendants have appealed the ruling.
Earthjustice is challenging the court's prohibition of public disclosure of the site locations.
"We see the corn fields, but we can't get any information about what they're doing," said Ritte. "We don't know the impact on our health or on traditional medicines and plants."
The seed business is one of the fastest-growing agricultural industries in Hawaii.
It has already surpassed the longtime staple of sugar in crop value and is closing in on pineapple.
The seed industry was worth an estimated $70 million in the 2005-2006 season and is still growing. Pineapple was worth an estimated $79.3 million in 2005, seed crops were worth $70.4 million and sugar cane was worth $58.8 million, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.