As pine goes under, prep fields well on new crops


POSTED: Monday, November 09, 2009

The permanent plowing over of the pineapple industry on Maui is lamentable—but came as no great surprise. The immediate effect is the laying off of 285 employees thrust into an economy with a severe shortage of jobs. Over the long term, it moves the state toward more diversified agriculture in a direction requiring assurance against environmental risks of genetically modified crops.

Maui Land & Pineapple Co. announced this week that it will stop planting pineapple immediately and will halt other pineapple operations by the end of this year. The company said it will seek other uses, such as growing other crops or ranching, of the 2,500 acres now planted in pineapple.

The move comes 2 1/2 years after St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., the world's largest seed company, bought 2,300 acres of ag land where Del Monte Fresh Produce Hawaii had tended pineapple crops in Kunia. That and the Maui stoppage leaves Dole Food Co.'s 2,700 acreage in Central Oahu as the only remaining pineapple land.

Hawaii's sugar industry, once a dominant player in the state's economy, has been shrinking in the past half century. In 1970, 5,900 sugar workers toiled on nearly 240,000 acres, bringing $110.6 million into the economy. Gay & Robinson unloaded its final sugar truck last month, leaving only 21,000 acres in Hawaii where sugar cane still is grown.

In place of pineapple and sugar, seed crops are flourishing. Hawaii's seed industry is expected to reach a record high $176.6 million in revenue from the 2008-09 season, a 26 percent increase from the previous season and quadruple the 2002-03 value, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

A July study from the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association found that Hawaii companies that grow plants for seed generate $13.8 million a year in state tax revenue. It said the local seed crop industry—which includes companies Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, BASF Plant Science and DuPont/Pioneer—run farms or facilities on Oahu, Kauai, Molokai and Maui. The main seed crops are corn, soybean and sunflower.

Monsanto is the primary seed crop farmer, having aggressively increased its farming of what is now the most productive agricultural industry, 96 percent of which is seed corn. In 2007, Monsanto increased its seed crop acreage with a 99-year lease on 1,650 acres of former pineapple lands on Molokai.

Monsanto's operations have concerned environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow and Hui Ho'opakele Aina. They contend that SmartStax, the company's genetically engineered corn, has not been adequately tested for long-term effects and could cross-pollinate with organic crops.

The environmental groups express concerns that SmartStax was too quickly approved this summer by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They say that was called into question in September by a federal court ruling that the agency's approval of genetically modified sugar beets had been inadequate.

Monsanto's success in Hawaii is impressive. However, the state should hesitate in welcoming seed corn as the state's major farming player without a vigorous review of its environmental repercussions.