If anyone could be crowned the King of Corn in Hawaii, it would be Jim Brewbaker.
As a scientist with University of Hawaii at Manoa, he has spent a half century studying and breeding different varieties, finding ways to cross-breed disease resistance and improve the production of one of the world’s most widely grown cereal crops.
It may seem odd in a place brimming with exotic fruits to focus on a plant that is mostly associated with America’s Midwest.
But Hawaii, as the ever-inquisitive scientist found decades ago, provides researchers with an edge other places find hard to match — a nearly endless growing season.
Without seasonal interruptions, research can be accelerated three- or four-fold.
“The more generations you can get in a year, the faster you improve,” Brewbaker said.
This isn’t wisdom he kept to himself.
In the early 1960s, he spoke to representatives of the corn seed industry — a diverse group of businesses at the time — about the benefits of Hawaii’s tropical environment.
“When I came to (Hawaii), I started talking to these guys,” he recalled. “On Molokai, we were doing a lot of work.
“We plant every month of the year and maybe you guys should look here,” Brewbaker said he told them.
In 1964, he provided a similar message during a speech to the American Seed Trade Association on the mainland.
The following a year, a couple companies planted small fields on Oahu.
Another came to Molokai in 1966.
The operations were small. Sugar was still the top industry in Hawaii, and most of the good farm land was locked up by the plantations.
“In 1969, I remember 30 companies,” Brewbaker said. “They were small, and they all shared ideas together, and no lawyers (were) hanging over anybody’s shoulder.”
The seed industry has since changed.
Firms consolidated, and with the genetic revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, a new world of biotechnology became within reach.
Through the next following decades, Hawaii’s agriculture also changed due to the shuttering of sugar plantations.
This provided new opportunities for biotech companies to quickly produce genetically engineered seed for mainland farmers as well as conduct research on new strains.
Following commercialization of the first transgenic crops in 1996, these firms began to acquire more land in Hawaii as their new seeds became widely accepted by farmers throughout the United States for their ability to tolerate herbicides, resist insects and survive drought conditions.
From its small beginnings, the seed industry is now the state’s largest in the agriculture sector, reaching a value of $243 million, double of what it was six or seven years ago.
In 2010, these companies — Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Dow Agrosciences — which own or lease 25,000 acres, exported 9.7 million pounds of seed, almost all of it corn and at least half of it genetically modified.
The industry employs 1,397 people.
Mark Phillipson, president of the seed trade group, Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, and head of corporate affairs in Hawaii for Syngenta, said the years of sharp growth in the state have ended, and he expects the industry to remain fairly stable.
Operations exist on Maui, Kauai, Oahu and Molokai. Phillipson said he isn’t aware of any plans to add Hawaii Island to that list.
“I don’t think any of the companies, at least that I’m aware of, are looking to getting more land,” he said.
Phillipson wasn’t sure why the island hadn’t been selected by the companies before, though he said the prevalence of the sugar industry and large operations like Parker Ranch may have made land and water harder to come by.
Looking back on his long life, Brewbaker marvels at how agriculture has changed.
He recalls growing up on a farm in Colorado and getting paid 10 cents an hour to pull weeds from sugar beet fields.
“Nowadays, they have sugar beets that are Roundup-ready,” Brewbaker said, referring to the pesticide that some plants are engineered to tolerate.
For some, this isn’t a change that’s worth celebrating.
While seed companies here have touted the benefits of their expanded presence, including employment and keeping agriculture land in production, there are those who see the trend of the last decade as alarming.
Opposition to genetic engineering has grow in Hawaii, including on the Big Island, where protesters have objected to the seed industry’s role in agriculture here and transgenic crops in general.
Protests have attracted hundreds around the island, and a bill to ban new transgenic crops in Hawaii County has its share of enthusiastic supporters.
Though none of the companies are on the island, activists like Merle Haywood of Hilo believes there is reason for residents here to be concerned.
Haywood, who is part of GMO Free Big Island, first became part of the organic food movement in the 1970s after becoming concerned about the impact of pesticides on people and the environment.
She sees biotech as the next threat to sustainable agriculture and believes the state’s valuable farm land should be used for feeding people here.
“We started as a reaction to what was happening at the time … and we’re here again,” Haywood said.
Opponents to genetic engineering also believe the use of transgenic crops can cause harm to human health and lead, at least in some cases, to the use of more chemicals while also threatening to pollinate nontransgenic crops. Some also say they don’t believe genes should be tampered with.
“After working so hard to create this whole alternative to chemical industrial agriculture, to create clean food, it’s really horrible,” Haywood said. “It’s horrible, that’s what it is.”
But what GMO critics say is a threat to a healthy planet and population, industry supporters say is a way to meet the needs of growing populations and market pressures.
“We are responding to worldwide consumer demand,” Phillipson said.
Phillipson said farmers adopt GMO seed because it allows them to become more efficient with use of their land while lowering their expenses. Crops can also be modified to be drought resistant, lessening the risk of losses for growers.
Supporters of genetic engineering also challenge claims that they can be harmful to people’s health and note they can reduce the need for certain chemicals, though controversially, by producing their own pest resistance. Creating disease resistant plants can also reduce the need for fungus- or pest-killing chemicals, they say.
Corn, though a popular side dish for barbecues, is also grown to make high-fructose corn syrup and cattle feed. It makes up the bulk of transgenic crops and 95 percent of the seed produced in Hawaii. Soybean makes up most of the rest.
Eighty-eight percent of all corn in the United States is genetically modified, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Twenty-one percent of corn crops are modified to tolerate certain herbicides, while 15 percent carry a gene known as Bt that kills pests.
About half of corn grown in the United States has both genes.
GMO critics largely point to these transgenic varieties as being examples of misuse of biotechnology. Herbicide-tolerant crops lead to more indiscriminate spraying of chemicals, they say, while they believe pesticide-resistant genes also pose threats to human health.
“I think they are using food which everyone needs … to sell their (chemicals),” said Kea Kapahua, another member of GMO Free Big Island.
Corn isn’t the only modified crop being grown or researched in Hawaii.
Soybean, wheat, sorghum, rice and rapeseed have all received permits for field tests within the last year.
In total, Hawaii has received more permits for field trials, with 2,996, than any other state, making it one of the major centers for genetic research.
Most of the permit holders are seed companies, while research centers like University of Hawaii also have a few.
Some GMO opponents worry this could lead to “contamination” of non-GMO plants and farms in Hawaii.
Glenn Martinez, an organic farmer on Oahu, said the impact goes beyond the seed farms.
“Does it affect me? Yeah,” he said.
“If I lose my organic certification, I’m done.”
Phillipson objects to the characterization of the farms as being covered in chemicals, and says seed farms go to lengths to prevent cross-pollination, including coordinating plantings with neighbors.
“There’s no tolerance testing,” he said. “There’s no 55 gallons of Brand X coming in at midnight.”
Carol Okada, plant quarantine branch manager for the state Department of Agriculture, said Hawaii has some of the most stringent regulations on genetically modified crops in the nation, though such measures typically only apply to transgenic plants that have yet to be approved for commercialization.
“It’s very important to our agriculture and our economy, but we want to make sure that it is also safe,” she said.
Okada said the department has concurrence on any field test permits and considers whether the crops could have an impact on wild or farmed crops.
For example, she said, “if cotton can cross-pollinate with native species, we don’t allow it” unless there are none in the area.
Inspections of field test sites are done during flowering periods, and mitigation measures such as bagging to prevent cross-pollination are used, Okada said. Other conditions can include time restrictions for planting and harvesting and distance requirements from other farms, she said.
Last year, there were 189 permits approved for Hawaii, with 123 for corn and another 50 for soy, Okada said.
Phillipson said they put a distance of 660 feet between crops to limit cross-pollination.
That results in only about 7,000 acres of land being used in active production.
Martinez, who last year was president of the Hawaii Farmers Union, said he believes the land could be better used for growing food for Hawaii.
“The Monsanto guys say we have a right to farm,” Martinez said. “We don’t see that as farming.
“What Monsanto and them are doing is not growing food … they are growing corn for cattle feed and corn syrup.”
Okada said seed companies have had a good record in the state, with few if any violations since 2000.
Paul Achitoff, an attorney for Earth Justice in Hawaii, doesn’t see the record quite as clean.
Achitoff won a lawsuit in 2006 against several companies, including Monsanto, that were growing transgenic crops intended for use as pharmaceuticals.
“Our concern was they had not complied with the basic environmental laws in terms of environmental impact statements, endangered species analysis … and they were in locations secretly,” he said. “Even if you wanted to know where they were you could not find out.”
Achitoff said a federal judge agreed that the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act procedures had not been followed.
“It’s my belief they are not growing those types of crops in Hawaii” anymore, he said. “They would need to disclose the basic fact that these crops are being grown.”
Genetic engineering research also has been conducted by Hawaii Agriculture Research Center on Oahu, Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo and the university system, though researchers say it makes up a tiny fraction of the work they do.
Rainbow papaya is the only transgenic crop developed by Hawaii scientists that has been commercialized, though field test permits on anthurium, tomato and bananas have been approved.
Most of the research in the state involves developing virus or disease resistant varieties that can help farmers.
David Christopher, chair of molecular biosciences and bioengineering at UH-Manoa, believes much of the backlash against genetic engineering is misplaced.
In a paper highlighting benefits of genetic engineering, Christoper wrote that transgenic crops can be safer through removal of allergy-causing genes and reduce the risk of fungal mycotoxins by procuring disease resistance.
“Scientists have devoted their lives to studying and researching to make plants better and, in turn, make the world a better place,” he said in an email to the Stephens Media. “But it only takes one misguided statement heard by the lay public (who may not have knowledge of genetics) to wipe out years of research, or to get it held-up in Legislature.”
Hector Valenzuela, a vegetable crops extension specialist with UH-Manoa, said concerns over genetic engineering are warranted.
While a supporter of genetic research, he believes research is moving too fast before all long-term effects can be studied.
“We know that genes also interact with other genes in ways that we don’t understand,” he said.
It’s also difficult, Valenzuela said, to track any potential impacts since, without labeling requirements for food products with transgenic ingredients, it’s hard to determine how much of a modified crop an individual has consumed.
Despite his influence in attracting the seed industry to Hawaii, Brewbaker remains much more of a conventionalist than the biotech companies that now call Hawaii home.
He still relies on cross-breeding various corn varieties to get the characteristics he desires, though he doesn’t object to the more advanced technology. The issue for him is cost.
“My impression is that the transgenes are certainly no more harmful than the genes I jockey around with now,” said Brewbaker, who established HCIA in 1971.
“It turns out, we think we can get the (disease) resistance by borrowing corn genes from Central America rather than trying to create new genes.”
Still, he would like to see more of the younger generations to spend more time in the field and less in the lab.
But overall, Brewbaker remains a glass-half-full outlook on the future of crop research, despite controversy over some of its applications.
“We have a kind of stupid optimism about us,” he said.
“There is something about plant breeding. You just expect that next year’s sweet corn will be a little sweeter … and three years from now the sweet corn will be even sweeter than that.”