KUNIA RESEARCH FARM, Oahu, Hawaii -- On a furrowed hillside suspended between alternate takes on paradise, with rugged, green mountains above and the placid waters of Pearl Harbor below, Hawaii's plantation legacy is constantly re-emerging.
Churned into the rust red dirt, ticker-tape pieces of black plastic flutter in the baking sun. Silence hangs in the air. Not so long ago, pineapples grew in the field and plastic lined the soil, conserving moisture and heat. When the pineapple plantation went south, the lining remained. With each new plowing, plastic shoots appear, peppering the soil.
The debris is a minor annoyance, however, for the farm's new owner, Monsanto Co.
Kunia has some of the best farmland in Hawaii. Blessed with irrigation and endless sunshine, Monsanto, the biotech seed developer, can raise up to four generations of corn in a year. In Iowa, they get one, assuming no floods. Hawaii's sped-up cycle is impossible to ignore, said Fred Perlak, the head of Monsanto's operations in the state.
"Building a new [corn] variety is like a Rubik's Cube," Perlak said. "No matter how skilled you are, no matter how bright you are, you still have to do a number of turns to get all the panels to line up. We're turning the panels [in Hawaii]. That's what we do."
Increasingly, many of Hawaii's farmers are turning panels.
Over the past decade, the five major companies that dominate the world seed industry have starkly increased their operations in Hawaii, where they have long tested experimental biotech crops. Rushing into a void created by the collapse of the islands' sugar cane and pineapple plantations, the firms are buying and leasing prime farmland to, in large part, grow corn seed.
Growing on limited acres, the seed farms are now Hawaii's largest agricultural sector, valued at $223 million last year -- worth more than sugar cane, coffee or pineapple. The companies have hired the plantations' former workforce and begun currying favor with state agriculture officials. In many ways, they have stepped into the leading, and sometimes domineering role, once played by the islands' sugar barons.
"They've become as strong a force as what sugar cane once was," said Carol Okada, manager of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture's Plant Quarantine Branch. "They've replaced essentially sugar cane and pineapple."
The shift began subtly. Fruit plantations fell fallow, undone by foreign competition, and the seed firms, operating nurseries and trial sites in the islands, began to expand. Driven by their competition to breed larger corn ears and advanced biology that can analyze a seed's traits before it is planted, the companies flocked to Hawaii's 365-day growing season.
There's nowhere in the world like it, given its combination of climate and familiar laws, said Cindy Goldstein, the outreach manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the seed firm owned by Dupont Co., which has operated in the state since 1968.
"We have an ideal climate," Goldstein said. "It doesn't get too hot and it doesn't get too cold for good pollen production." And given that at least half of the crops grown by Pioneer are genetically modified and often under experimental permits, "We like being able to work under the U.S. regulatory network," she added.
Many in Hawaiian agriculture see the seed companies as saviors. The firms have spared farmland that would otherwise be lost to development. While the rest of the farm sector has flatlined, the seed companies have grown at double-digit rates, testing their corn, conventional and biotech, in a cluster of fields northwest of the Honolulu airport.
While Hawaii has the largest number of experimental biotech crop trials in the country, the residents of Oahu, the state's most urban island, are largely unaware that their farm industry has come to rely on bioengineered commodity crops. For many, tropical farms still evoke notions of pineapples popping from the ground, not corn stalks.
"People come to Hawaii and think pineapple, macadamia nut, something like that," said Al Santoro, a retired naval intelligence officer who owns a small organic farm on Oahu's northern shore. "And they find out it's [genetically modified] corn seed."
Santoro is an outspoken skeptic of the seed industry's rise. They are using vacant land and creating jobs, but their seed, flowing back to research centers on the mainland or South America, is not feeding Hawaiians, he said. For a state that imports nearly 90 percent of its food, it is an unsettling trend.
"All it is is another plantation," he said.
In Hawaii, however, things are rarely so simple. Beneath the islands' veneer of lassitude and aloha lurk byzantine land dynamics shaped by royal lines and fading estates, along with a constant influx of haole -- "foreigners" from the U.S. mainland and abroad -- ready to sink money into their idea of paradise.
For the seed firms, paradise is biotech crops. For many others, it's not farming at all.
Jim Brewbaker does not, at first glance, seem like a corporate mastermind.
A geneticist stationed at the University of Hawaii for the past 50 years, Brewbaker keeps an experimental corn plot on Oahu's rainy eastern shore. His white hair tousled and curiosity at a steady pique, Brewbaker, whose sedan license plate is emblazoned "MAIZE 2," walks barefoot through the farm's volcanic soil, cutting off corn ears he has bred to test the function of individual genes.
Using a stubby curved knife locked between his fingers like a brass knuckle, Brewbaker slips through the alphabetically arranged rows. There is one cob that, beneath its pale yellow kernels, burns a royal purple. Many of the stalks are inbred, their genetic purity leaving them weak against disease like smut, which replaces kernels with tumorous fungus. Protecting corn against such plagues is Brewbaker's specialty.
Some of Brewbaker's breeds are not so applied. Continuing on, he shucks a cob to reveal, rather than seeds, an ear sprouting elongated, cartoonish kernel sheaths, the corn seemingly cloaked in the chunky, green-tinted spikes of a punk singer's hair.
"Oh dear. Look at that," he said. "Isn't that ugly?"
More than anyone else, Brewbaker is responsible for King Corn's arrival in Hawaii. Lured to the islands from Brookhaven National Lab in 1961, just a few years after Hawaii achieved statehood, Brewbaker saw land perfect for sheltering corn during Midwest winters. The seed companies had been growing in Puerto Rico and South Florida, but the farms were risky, exposed to hurricanes or a cold snap.
"He was able to demonstrate that you could grow corn in the islands year round, and do it quite successfully," said Paul Koehler, Monsanto's outreach manager, who has worked in Hawaiian agriculture since the 1970s. "Those initial efforts are what really led to the industry taking a look as to whether it could succeed here in the state."
Brewbaker appeared at meetings on the mainland, encouraging "seedmen" to grow on Molokai, a water-poor Hawaiian island neglected by the plantations. Soon, Cornnuts Inc. was growing corn on a few acres there, followed by firms like Cargill and Pioneer.
While productive on their few acres, the seed companies were shut out from the prime land dominated by sugar cane. They won leases from a hog and watermelon farmer but never from the plantations. It was a different time. The seed companies lacked the resources or power to win out over Big Sugar.
"If you go back about 60 years, you could go into almost any village in Iowa and find a seed service," Brewbaker said. This was before the consolidation enabled by the Plant Variety Protection Act and gene patents. "There were at that time 200 companies that marketed hybrid corn," he said.
The seed companies didn't lease any plantation land until 1980; by then, the writing was on the wall for the sugar industry. The companies could not compete with sugar produced from tropical countries with cheaper labor and few environmental laws. One by one, the plantations would close over the next two decades.
"They had huge investments in the factories that they basically wanted to rust [out]," Brewbaker said. "And that's about the way it disappeared. Very gently."
In many ways, however, the plantations haven't disappeared -- only their crops have.
Famous for its surfing and bohemian spirit, Oahu's northern shore once rippled thick with sugar cane and pineapple, said Jay Shintaku, who helps run a corn seed reproduction facility for Pioneer near the shoreline.
"Cane was dominant on the whole side of the North Shore," said Shintaku, who grew up raising hydroponic tomatoes on his uncle's nearby farm. "Now there is none. We have [wild] sugar cane here and there, but basically you have diversified agriculture and corn."
For 18 years, Shintaku worked nearby overseeing pineapple operations for Dole Foods before joining Pioneer in 1999. The pineapple industry held on longer than sugar, and for a time Dole was even growing corn for Pioneer. That failing, Dole, like many of its sugar peers, found itself a promising new role on the island: landlord.
"Dole is the corporate landlord around here," Shintaku said. "They own a lot of the land."
It is a common situation, stemming back to the plantation families that ran Hawaii during its territorial days. Much of the state's land remains in the control of these families' trusts, along with Kamehameha Schools, a private system established in the 1800s by the final heir of one of Hawaii's royal lines. Kamehameha alone owns about half of Hawaii's farmland; its $7.82 billion endowment is larger than Columbia University's.
The trusts are not often eager to sell their land, its market price inflated by projected urbanization, unless it's to the developers unrolling housing across Oahu. Small farmers find themselves in an near feudal arrangement, leasing land at uncertain terms and short contracts, said Dean Okimoto, the owner of Nalo Farms, a greens producer on Oahu's eastern shore, and former president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau.
"A lot of farmers are quitting because without long-term leases, what kind of future do you have?" Okimoto said. "Hawaii ... is one of the few states that has more leased farmland than owned."
The government and nonprofits have encouraged the trusts to make some farmland available through easements and conservation programs -- according to Okimoto, 40,000 acres have been designated permanent farmland so far -- but resources are limited, and Hawaii's agriculture budget has suffered steep cuts. Many of its airport inspection stands, crucial for warding off invasive species, sit vacant as tourists from Russia or Japan hula by on their way to the beach.
High land prices and limited budgets have Hawaii's new farm chief, Russell Kokubun, deeply worried about the state's ability to achieve any measure of food security. A zucchini farmer turned Democratic politician, he frets about high milk prices. Three decades ago, Hawaii was self-sufficient in milk, he said. Today, three dairies remain. Thanks to cheap oil, shipping costs used to be low, but now prices are high and volatile.
It is a pattern that has repeated itself throughout Hawaiian agriculture.
"It's kind of like double jeopardy for us," Kokubun said in an interview in his downtown office in Honolulu. "We have no control over the cost of food and transportation. And we're not growing enough of our own."
The seed companies are not growing products for Hawaiians, but Kokubun still welcomes their success. Many thought, after the plantations left, little farming would survive.
"[They] left a huge void," he said. "What the seed industry has done is provided a good alternative to that kind of large-scale agricultural enterprises. ... It's created an opportunity to view agriculture as a viable industry."
From a sense of duty or public relations, the seed companies have taken steps to make land available to small farmers. For instance, Monsanto leases 1,600 acres of farmland from the U.S. military on Oahu, and the firm has agreed to lease 180 acres of that land to small farmers at a modest rate, partially at Okimoto's prompting.
"We're putting farmers on there that are going to do food production agriculture in the middle of GMO corn," Okimoto said. He hopes to get a few organic farmers on the land, assuming they do not cultivate corn. If the park works, Okimoto will push for the other seed companies to follow suit.
Often, however, even when land is sold for farming, it is not put to use, said Santoro, the organic farmer. His farm, growing breadfruit and lychee, is one of 15 lots created from a former plantation, all flagged for agriculture. But Santoro is the only real farmer around, he said. His neighbors raise one or two horses, living lives of leisure.
"The guy with two horses getting same tax exemptions that I'm getting," he said.
It is a role often played by haole money. For example, many coffee plantations on the Big Island were bought during the dot-com boom. Their wealthy owners don't need to make money off the coffee, but with the amount they paid for their land, property taxes rise for their neighboring farmers, Okimoto said.
"They don't realize they're hurting the industry," he said.
Back on a tour of Monsanto's Kunia farm, Taylor Kellerman wades into a field of corn.
Among its duties, Kunia helps maintain the genetic purity of Monsanto's inbred lines of corn. It is grueling work, said Kellerman, who worked in pineapple before joining Monsanto. Workers shift from stalk to stalk, alighting a paper bag, previously placed to trap the corn's pollen, over its ear, self-pollinating the plant. Each stalk is emblazoned with its own barcode, allowing the gene jockeys on the mainland to track their work.
The firm tests many different transgenic traits on the islands. The recent government-issued permits for their experimental corn alone read like a laundry list of biotech dreams: improved nitrogen metabolism; cold and drought tolerance; reduced environmental stress; altered oil, seed, protein and fiber content; fusarium resistance; and, of course, herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, the company's bread-and-butter traits.
Monsanto bought the 2,300-acre farm in 2007 from James Campbell Co. for an undisclosed sum, after its previous lease holder, Del Monte, abruptly abandoned the Hawaiian pineapple game, reportedly leaving an entire harvest behind. The lot came with some familiar neighbors: Two of Monsanto's biggest rivals, Pioneer and Syngenta, own farmland above and below its fields.
While these companies most famously work in genetic engineering, they are also locked in a cutthroat competition to increase the yields of their crops through advanced breeding. Over the past decade, it has become commonplace for these firms to assess a new generation of corn not through how it grows in the field, but by genetic markers flagged in the seed's DNA (Greenwire, Dec. 21, 2009). The faster a generation is produced, the faster these breeding gains can be assessed.
Such competition caused the recent spike in Hawaiian activity, Monsanto's Perlak said. "[Our competitors are] clever as well," he said. "We're not the only smart people out here. They see the opportunities and they're expanding."
On Oahu and the other islands, these firms also value the state's agricultural isolation.
"If you're in the middle of Iowa and studying a new [biotech crop], you've got to be in absolute isolation," said Brewbaker, the corn breeder. "Here it is concentrated in a way so that you'd think about all of [their acres are] made available for genetically modified crops."
A decade ago, this isolation was not enough to prevent controversy. From 2001 to 2003, Monsanto was one of four companies testing biotech crops in Hawaii that produced pharmaceutical drugs, including HIV vaccines and cancer-fighting agents, as they grew. Environmental groups deeply opposed the crops, citing risks to wildlife, and in 2006 a federal judge ruled that the U.S. government did not follow proper procedure in allowing the Hawaiian trials.
By then, Monsanto had abandoned development of "biopharma" crops for three years. While the company cited financial reasons, it was clear that Hawaii residents, who have not vociferously protested traditional modified corn, would not extend their embrace to pharmaceutical crops.
Hawaii's isolation cuts two ways. Given the lack of commercial corn or soybean crops, it's excellent for breeding and experiments, but it's also the most remote archipelago in the world, making bulk breeding operations costly. There are limits on how much the seed firms will grow.
That means much farmland will remain vacant, said Brewbaker, the breeder.
"It's kind of embarrassing," he said. "The 250,000 acres that were in sugar are now empty. And the corn seedsmen only want 10,000 of it. The sugar people would be happy to see them use more."
For all his connection with land, Brewbaker is a realist. He has heard the fears about food security expressed by Kokubun, the agriculture chief, and he is not convinced. Hawaii simply won't be able to grow its own food; if farming is to survive, growers will need to cultivate expensive crops, like the Koa tree, that thrive only here, he said.
"It's obvious to me that with the world ecosystem and world agriculture, we need to have industries like the seed industry that you can't have in Iowa," he said. "And we'll buy corn from Iowa. We'll buy strawberries from California."
Santoro, the organic farmer, is not so certain. While newer to farming than Brewbaker, he believes that has given him a clear view of Hawaii's problems. The state can eliminate the infrastructure requirements it imposes on former plantation land, lowering prices by thousands of dollars. But the plantation mindset is hard to eradicate, he said.
Of course, there are realities to acknowledge, Santoro said. Paradise has its costs.
"Land in Hawaii is not like land on the mainland," he said, "and it's never going to be."
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.