Part One of Three/Biotech in Hawaii
Some of my readers may already know that I recently spent nine glorious days on the beautiful island of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. In addition to the scuba diving, snorkeling and general ocean frolicking that my husband and I engaged in, we also lucked into a private tour of the Monsanto Piilani farm and plant breeding facility in Kihei which is on the Southwestern side of the island. Coincidentally, the place turned out to be literally up the street from our condo.
I’m not gonna lie, there was definitely a time when I would not have set foot on a Monsanto property, let alone toured it. More than likely I would have stormed the parking lot waving some kind of skull and crossbones sign.
Or I might have once imagined wild-haired scientists wearing Monsanto embroidered lab coats inside such a facility – monitoring test tubes and petri dishes, bra-ha-ha-ing as they discovered yet more ways to take over the world’s food supply and poison us – all the while raking in billions.
I was quite relieved to find that what is actually going on at the roughly 300-acre plot of gently sloping, rocky land with a stunning ocean view is neither malevolent, mysterious nor dangerous.
Let me tell you about it!
After parking our rental car and signing in at the front office, my husband, Kent, and I were warmly greeted by Carol Reimann, community affairs manager, and David Stoltzfus, Maui site leader. I felt welcome and at ease as Carol and David led us into a conference room for the first segment of our tour.
Being the only two visitors in attendance, the room felt much too big as we sat down to watch a PowerPoint presentation covering general Monsanto history and operations followed by more Hawaii-specific topics.
Here is a little Monsanto history:
In 2000, the original Monsanto chemical company, you know, infamous for their role in the use of DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs, entered into a merger and changed its name to Pharmacia, which is now a subsidiary of Pfizer. (Click here for information about Monsanto’s relationship to other companies.) Soon after, a new Monsanto Company was born with interests focused solely on agriculture. It is the new Monsanto that is in operation today.
As for Monsanto’s operations in Hawaii, they started when the once thriving sugar industry collapsed in the mid 1990s. The land either reverted to the state or was held privately and leased to the ‘Big Six’ biotech companies: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, Pioneer (DuPont), BASF and Bayer. Hawaii is a superior location for plant breeding research due to its being in the US and having a year round growing season. Three to four growing cycles occur in a single year thereby greatly reducing the time needed to get new seeds to worldwide markets. Though only Monsanto operates on Maui, it and the other five have similar research facilities on other islands as well.
Had I been able to get to Kauai, I would have responded to another offer I received to tour a BASF facility!
After the slide show, the four of us packed into the front and back seats of a pick up that could have been any farm truck in rural America. Mud on the sideboards. Dust on the dash. David wore jeans and a golf shirt and sort of looked like a scientist-turned-farmer. Carol looked chic in an above-knee knit skirt and stiletto pumps.
As we lumbered uphill to our first stop, the discussion centered around Monsanto’s complicated history and how the company’s public image is so tarnished. Carol admitted that when Monsanto broke free from the chemical side of their operations, they should have changed their company name because doing that alone would have likely reduced a large amount of the flack they are still getting about the original Monsanto’s much maligned chemical past.
I then asked the following: “What if Monsanto and the whole biotech industry had done a massive education project when GE foods were first introduced so that people could have learned the benefits early on, thus avoiding learning about GMOs after the fact and being so angry. Do you think that would have helped?” Carol and David indicated that perhaps that would also have helped.
The farm tour commenced and we stopped at several locations on the property, beginning with the greenhouse (left).
Plants here are labeled with a barcode for whatever trait has been engineered into the seed. Constant, strict dlligence in the handling of these barcodes must be maintained.
Next we proceeded to where young plants had been recently placed in rows, still marked individually with barcodes but now part of rows or sections indicated by colored flags. These flags mark what traits are being tested in larger areas. For example, a blue flag might indicate that a row is to be sprayed with a certain pesticide to confirm if plants are indeed resistant to that pesticide.
We moved on to the seed room (below). This was a curious room containing rows and rows of small sacks with corn seeds in them. To me, they looked like small bags of popcorn. Of course, each and every bag must receive a barcode sticker that represents DNA traits. The machine in the picture does its part to ensure that human error in sorting and coding the seeds will not be a factor.
David paused the tour to see if I had more questions or if there was something else I wanted to see on the property. As I often do in situations like this, I blanked, so I asked him what questions other people asked and what they wanted to see. He told me it depends. Farmers want to see the farm equipment. Kids want to see the robotics.
Robotics! Yes, by all means, I wanted to see the robotics.
The final stop was a fitting grand finale. In this room, I met the off-loader and learned about the significant relationship between this robotic machine and its cohort back at the Monsanto Headquarters in St. Louis, the chipper.
The bags of seeds sorted in the seed room are sent off to St. Louis coded with the trait in question. Once in St. Louis, they are put into a tray like what you see above. The chipper then chips a tiny fragment of seed to be used for DNA testing, also done by machine. Meanwhile, the entire filled tray gets sent back to Maui. By the time the tray arrives, the DNA will have been analyzed on all the chips, sent electronically back to the off-loader in Maui and it will be known exactly which seeds contain the desired traits.
It is then that the robotic off-loader (below) stealthily hovers over the seed tray and in one fell swoop, extracts the wanted seeds. The seeds that don’t “pass muster” are discarded while those that do are then replanted in the greenhouse and the cycle starts anew.
Overall, my take on the Piilani plant breeding operation was that it was extremely thorough, testing seeds and plants over and over and over again, and at every stage of development. It was efficient though not overly high tech, and in the end, miraculously capable of breeding corn seeds that are used all over the world.
I’d like to thank Carol and David again, and also Renee Kester, who, from the island of Kauai, reached out to me and played a major role in getting this all set up.
I enjoyed a pleasant, informative afternoon at Monsanto’s Piilani Farm!
~Julee K @ Sleuth 4 Health
This post was updated at 7:25, PST
I plan to write a follow-up article to this one very soon. Once I have gathered the additional information I need, the article will focus more on the controversies of having biotech on the beautifully unique and isolated Hawaiian islands.
Given the growing hullabaloo over biotech in Hawaii, I will offer my opinion in advance that there are far worse threats to this paradise than plant breeding research.