Pioneer Hi-Bred considers expanding Kaua‘i operations

LIHU‘E — Pioneer Hi-Bred International is considering starting a commercial growing operation on Kaua‘i, which would expand its existing seed engineering research work at its facility in Waimea, the company’s business and community outreach manager said.

The goal is to start a commercial operation within the next two years, Cindy Goldstein said prior to her presentation at the Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce quarterly meeting Thursday night.

Pioneer, a DuPont business, currently operates a research and seed multiplication and seed parenting facility on Kaua‘i, and sends its hybrid seeds to the Mainland.

Statewide operations generated $247 million for the Hawai‘i economy in 2010 and 2011, Goldstein said, with about one-third of that benefiting Kaua‘i. That includes the salaries of Pioneer workers, the value of goods and services in the local economy and revenue from seed operations, she said.

The threat of climate change and continued urbanization of existing farmlands has contributed to efforts under way to discover how to grow more food in less space, Goldstein said. A global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 makes the challenge a critical one, she said.

There are climates similar to that of Kaua‘i around the world, but Goldstein said Pioneer chose Kaua‘i for its good pollination, adequate rainfall and sunshine. These factors make for a steady rotation of crops, and efforts are aided by a good infrastructure and a local labor force with knowledge and experience gained from the former sugarcane industry.

Goldstein, who has doctoral degrees in plant physiology and molecular biology, and a master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics, is also a product of the sugarcane industry, where she once worked as a researcher.

“The seed companies took on many of those employees,” she said. “They know the soils, they are trained in agriculture and they know how to grow crops in tropical environments.”

Kaua‘i is also a case of not putting all of Pioneer’s eggs in one basket. A similarly productive seed operation facility in Puerto Rico, for example, is vulnerable to frequent hurricanes and storms, she said, and makes it essential to disperse projects worldwide.  

Pioneer in Kaua‘i has established productive partnerships with India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. More recently it has started joint ventures in various regions of China. Scientists are working on improved seed lines with plant materials specific to China.

“That is the challenge to the United States and the world, and China in particular because of its population size,” she added.

Goldstein said China faces problems similar to those facing American farmers. Urbanization leads to marginalized farmlands, and land that goes to housing tends not to return to agricultural use, she said.

A network of Pioneer companies and Mainland universities work with the Kaua‘i facility on plant breeding programs for corn, soy, sunflower and sorghum.

In partnership with the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, and the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation, Pioneer researchers on Kaua‘i are developing drought-resistant corn and wheat. The strands use higher nitrogen content to increase yields as climates become less amenable to growing.

Sorghum plant breeding is also leading to a more lifesustaining plant to address starvation in sub-Saharan Africa, she said. Cross-breeding efforts are increasing its nutritional value with higher levels of Vitamin A, zinc, iron and digestive aids.

“That is something we are doing in Waimea,” she said.

Sunflowers are valuable for the many oils they can produce. She said work is ongoing to create strands that are more disease-resistant and with stronger stalks that are less vulnerable to high winds.

Extreme weather is a reality that will continue to be a threat to growing, and Goldstein said the loss of agricultural land requires the enhancement of weather-resistant and disease-resistant plants.

Every plant at the Kaua‘i facility is tagged and tracked from planting to harvesting. The data is crucial in development of strands throughout the year in various conditions.

Pioneer is also concerned with bee-friendly practices and wants to help stop the decline of bee populations. Goldstein said they are addressing the varroa mite and hive beetle that is devastating to bee hives.

Spraying and other routine management practices that could disturb bees is done at times when bees are less active.

Other efforts are planting cover crops such as flowers and buckwheat as pollen sources to encourage bee survival.

Regulatory structures addressing plant engineering were in place long before the biotech industry, all falling under the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies, as well as state agencies in Hawai‘i.

Goldstein said it is not commonly known to biotech opponents that industry scientists and technicians are following a protocol.

“People are surprised to learn that companies are working under a solid regulatory authority that is in place, and that is one reason that we are here in Hawai‘i” Goldstein said. “We want to be doing work where there is a sound regulatory system that is well in place.”

Mark Phillipson, general manager of Syngenta Hawai‘i, who was at Thursday night’s meeting, said that not many people realize that research on Kaua‘i is making agriculture possible where it is currently threatened.

“That is Hawai‘i’s aloha to the world,” Phillipson said.

• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or tlaventure@ thegardenisland.com.

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