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Common Ground: Advancing Agriculture in Hawai'i

(page 3 of 7)

Technology

Emerging science provides safer food as well as new business opportunities.

Photo: Wes Funai

From early testing on plant pathogens, to seed selection as a method of developing the most successful plants, let’s look at some of the ways technology is used in the field.

As more stringent federal regulations on agricultural safety come into effect, technologies such as RFID tagging, global positioning systems, and geographic information systems have become increasingly important in producing, tracking and understanding food. Hawai‘i businesses, farmers, researchers, students and communities are at the forefront of testing and developing the technologies that will forever change how customers interact with food and agriculture.

Tracking Produce

In the produce business, quality can often hinge on a few degrees in temperature, and now the key to ensuring it may lie in a few small electronic tags.

This past fall, embedded in a shipment of avocados from Southern California, a high-tech system helped Hawai‘i food distributor Armstrong Produce track temperature every hour throughout the six-day ocean journey to Honolulu.

Ensuring the freshness of produce during shipment is a big deal. If a product arrives spoiled, it can be difficult to determine where an error occurred in the supply chain, and both distributor and retailer can face major losses on food that can’t be sold.

Not now. Using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology attached to reusable plastic pallets, along with remote cloud information tracking, Armstrong Produce, one of Hawai‘i’s largest produce wholesalers, can track the temperature of a product from farm to store. This enables the company to identify weak links in refrigeration that can diminish shelf life by up to two weeks and create issues with food safety.

This is especially important as the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in January 2011, is put in place to ensure preventative measures are taken to enhance food safety.

“The big issue for us is that many times when we bring in loads of product they are often staged in areas where they are exposed to hot sun for hours at a time,” says Tisha Uyehara, the company’s director of marketing. “RFID provides us the ability to see when, where and for how long that cold chain was broken.”

RFID ensures food safety and quality.
Photos: Armstrong produce, thinkstock

Armstrong has long advocated for food safety precautions, consistently auditing shipments and working closely with shippers and farmers to enforce strict standards of quality. A little over a year ago, the company implemented a pilot phase of the new RFID system, and tests have been conducted on shipments arriving from as far away as Taiwan. Armstrong currently has tags installed on about 100 pallets, which is less than 20 percent of what might be used in a single day.

Dr. John Ryan, the former administrator for the Hawai‘i State Department of Agriculture’s quality assurance division, is working with Armstrong on implementing the technology and collecting data. He is now president of Ryan Systems, based in California, where he works with companies to implement high-technology quality control systems.

“During the handling process, produce is supposed to be 55 degrees maximum,” Ryan says. “During loading, it can be very irregular. If optimal temperature has been exceeded, you have lost a week or more of shelf life.”

Armstrong had for years been using one-time-use, 15-cent, paper RFID tags that were printed at the farm, which would only show the farm name, produce type and box number. The newer, reusable Teleflex-brand electronic tags are about the size of a cell phone and can be read at distances of up to 100 meters with hand-held RFID devices. Temperatures, times and locations are then linked and reviewed on the web.

Agriculture grows visitor engagement and loyalty while reforesting Hawai’i.

Initial investment for the tracking system can easily exceed $10,000, with each tracking device costing $30, and handheld readers selling for several thousand dollars each. Since Armstrong is still testing the system, it hasn’t incurred any up-front costs, Uyehara says.

As emerging technologies become more refined, Uyehara says the company hopes to grow the program to include devices that can detect variables including bacteria, insects and chemicals. This may help early identification of invasive species ahead of shipment arrivals, eliminating lengthy delays in identifying or quarantining species.

“There is great value in this kind of information that will help us be a better company overall,” Uyehara says. “Down the line we see this as changing the face of the produce industry.”

Planting Profits

When the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai was looking for a partner last year to help it plant a half million trees on the Big Island, it teamed up with Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods, a sustainable forestry company founded on the island in 2008.

The planting, one of the largest in a company-wide effort by Four Seasons to plant 10 million trees through its 85 hotels and resorts globally, allows guests to purchase and track each tree using innovative global positioning and geographic information mapping systems with RFID technology.

Launched in August 2011, the resort has already seen several thousand seedlings planted and is adding the option for guests to plant their own private Family Legacy Forests ranging in size from 50 to 1,000 or more trees. It costs $60 to plant one koa tree in the Legacy program, $1 of which is donated to the Nature Conservancy.

Guests at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai can purchase and track trees through Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods.
Photo: Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods

“We’ve received lots of feedback about how good it feels to give back to such an amazing island, to help preserve it and help it grow,” says Robert Whitfield, regional vice president and general manager for the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. “We built a learning center, in which guests can meet with an HLH representative, learn about this initiative, watch a video showing why and where we’re doing this and actually plant their own seedling, which will later be transferred and planted in the koa forest.”

It’s one of the largest commitments to Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods’ efforts to reforest an area of the Big Island’s Hāmākua Coast, under its legacy program, which plants trees for long-term reforestation. Combined with its tree-for-harvest program, which makes up about half of the total forest, the company grew from 20,000 trees on 40 acres in year one to more than 200,000 trees on more than 400 acres, with the goal of planting 500 acres annually.

The majority of the total forest is the native koa tree, but the company is also planting a sampling of other trees naturally found in the area, including other native species such as sandalwood, mamane and naio, which make up about 15 percent of the legacy forest.

Part of what makes this possible is the company’s investment of about $250,000 into an advanced proprietary tagging system and highly specialized database. This allows Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods to track ownership, growth and maintenance of each tree, as well as provide individuals and companies with specific information that can be tracked online using a unique serial number.

Photo: Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods

“When we were looking at planting trees as investments, we needed to develop a system to identify each tree, and match them to their specific owner,” says Jeff Dunster, who co-founded the company with longtime friend Darrell Fox, after both left careers as merger and acquisition consultants. “Besides the tree-for-harvest model, our main passion is reforesting. RFID technology actually allowed us to audit right down to a single tree. We have found a way to make ecology and economy fit together.”

The company, which started with Dunster and Fox, has grown to encompass more than 30 employees, volunteers and interns. They rely on a system of durable outdoor-use tags and remote readers to help them manage everything from the harvesting of seeds from the mother trees to the distribution of fertilizer. Trees can be tracked from seedlings to the moment they are processed at a lumber facility.

“The tags that we make for Hawaiian Legacy are made out of the same plastic as what is used in soda bottles,” says Bill Compitello of Confidex, the Finland-based company that manufactures tags for uses including tracking beer kegs and construction equipment. “They are weather-resistant and recyclable, and the material lasts decades.”

Depending on the use and quantity, RFID tags can range in price from 5 cents for a one-use indoor tag to $5 each for the more rugged variety, Compitello says.

“The best way to describe it is a license plate,” he continues. “You can use that data stream any way you want.” Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods has been able to collect an enormous amount of data on the life of a tree, down to the weather and soil conditions on the day it was planted. “We factor all of that into the survival rates and have a much better understanding of what they can withstand and what is optimal for planting,” Fox says.

Fox and Dunster are confident that having a constant, trackable and reliable forest of koa trees will help boost the value of the wood. “With manufacturers, they would love to use koa, but they don’t want to make the engineering, manufacturing and marketing commitments based on a supply which is not consistent,” Fox says. “If you can have availability, you can have longer-term commitments from someone who can use this wood.”

Finding Fresh Ideas

In Hawai‘i, where it is estimated by the Rocky Mountain Institute that about 85 percent of all food consumed is imported, it can be difficult to find locally sourced products.

 Lei Fresh smart phone app prototype screen samples.
Photo: Lei Fresh

Denise Hayashi, executive director of the Hawai‘i Agricultural Foundation, is hoping to change that with a new smart phone app, called Lei Fresh, and website, LeiFresh.com. These portals are intended to help users discover what sorts of local foods are available at Hawai‘i farms, stores and farmers’ markets. The idea germinated about two years ago as an effort to increase purchasing of Hawai‘i products.

“We want to make it easier for consumers to connect with local ag products at the retail level,” says Melanie Kosaka, principal at Uapo LLC, who developed Lei Fresh and has experience with several other food-related apps. “Many consumers don’t know when or where these local products are available.”

Developed with a grant from the Island Innovation Fund, an arm of the Hawai‘i Community Foundation that helps support new approaches to community challenges, the app is available for free download through iTunes. An app for Android phones is also expected.

Foods will be divided into four sections:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Dairy and eggs
  • Fish, meat and chicken
  • Locally made products such as honey.

Users will be able to search for the price and arrival date of items at specific locations; upload recipes; locate a farmers’ market; and read about what’s happening on the farm, with blog and photo posts from the grower.

Hayashi said she hopes to have up to seven retailers providing information by the app’s launch this year, with Foodland and Whole Foods already signed up. Participating food providers go through a two-hour tutorial to ensure that they can quickly and easily update product availability and information.

The app and website will also include a detailed listing of farmers’ markets across Hawai‘i , with a monthly calendar showing locations, dates, vendors and featured products. To get involved, visit Hawaiiagfoundation.org or call (808) 738-6245.

Educational Investments

Twelve years ago, the nonprofit Maui Economic Development Board (MEDB) conducted a study that documented a significant brain drain in the state’s science and technology jobs.

A teacher helps Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) student Kalei Miller.
Photo: Maui economic devel0pment board

Less than 1 percent of so-called STEM careers in the state—representing science, technology, engineering and math—were held by graduates of Hawai‘i high schools and there were very few women, according to data collected by MEDB.

To help reverse the problem, the group founded the Women in Technology Project. Funded in part by grants from the U.S. Departments of Labor, Agriculture and Education, the project is starting to effect a turnaround. In a similar survey of more than 1,500 technical positions in 2009, 25 percent were held by Hawai‘i high school graduates. It’s a number the group expects to keep growing, due in part to a menu of programs incorporating hands-on technology in the classroom.

“Geo-spatial and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) were quickly identified as tools that could be deployed in our schools that would be age appropriate for the full education pipeline from elementary through college,” said MEDB vice president Leslie Wilkins. “Also, the U.S. Department of Labor was projecting GIS as a top in-demand skill set.”

Due to the group’s partnership with Esri, the world’s leading GIS software developer, and the State Department of Education, Hawai‘i has become the first state in the country to provide GIS software to schools throughout its educational system, spanning grades K-12. Nearly 500 teachers have been trained in the program, in more than 200 schools to date.

The GIS software will be offered for free through 2014, allowing students and teachers access to high-end industry tools, including the virtual campus training. Since launching, the program has been used as a model for more than a dozen other states throughout the country.

“Our companies are realizing that it is good for the bottom line to invest in home-grown talent,” Wilkins says. “We are starting to place a lot of our students in positions.”

The STEMworks courses teach students GIS, along with many other industry-standard tools such as computer-aided design (CAD), often used by engineers and architects. Student-led projects have included the study of beach erosion on Kaua‘i as well as GPS and GIS mapping of invasive species on Maui.

“It is project-based learning, where students select issues or community-based concerns that resonate with them and they play a part in building a solution,” Wilkins says.

The Women in Technology Project partners with the Maui County Farm Bureau to help educate students about the future of Hawai‘i ’s agriculture industry. The group also developed the first clean energy curriculum in the state, along with an iPad app featuring information about solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and biomass energy.

“Like any industry, technology has become a pervasive part of agriculture,” Wilkins said. “Agriculture is hard work, but there is not any other business or industry that is more relevant to our sustainability and our future. Technology is at the intersection of that.”

Field Diagnostics

For most farms in Hawai‘i , detecting pathogenic microorganisms such as E. coli is no easy process.

Tests can cost up to $100 and usually come with a three- to four-day wait while a sample is shipped to a dedicated laboratory facility. That can be a risky delay, especially if the crop has already been distributed to stores, explains Scott Shibata, president and CEO of Diagenetix, a new Hawai‘i company founded to address the issue.

“This happens throughout the Mainland, as well,” Shibata says. “Producers and processors don’t wait for the result, as their product is perishable and extra days in cold storage can be expensive, so they ship it anyway, which is one of the reasons why you see food recalls happen.”

Daniel Jenkins, researcher in CTAHR’s Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering Department, conducts a field test in a Guatemalan potato field.
Photo: Diagenetx

It’s a problem that Shibata and several University of Hawai‘i researchers, including Dr. Daniel Jenkins and his PhD student Ryo Kubota in the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering, are working to solve. Under Diagenetix, they have developed and are testing a portable hand-held device that can be interfaced with a smart phone to give an accurate reading of a specific pathogen within 10 minutes.

“Every agricultural product you can think of has major pests and diseases that affect it, so there could be hundreds of things you could test for,” Jenkins says. “It’s a multi-faceted challenge which includes food-safety issues, quarantine issues and disease management at a local level.”

Traditionally, agricultural diagnostics required growing pathogens in media over several days and then subjecting them to a battery of biochemical and biological tests. Advances in immunological and gene-based methods have greatly shortened the amount of time needed to get results, but the most powerful gene-based methods still require bulky, power-intensive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) instruments that can cost in excess of $20,000.

According to Jenkins, miniaturization of this technology to make it more portable reduces the energy requirement, but commercially available “portable” instruments are still relatively large, even more expensive than their laboratory counterparts, and require access to a power outlet, rendering them unsuitable for use in the field.  

The technology developed by Diagenetix uses isothermal DNA amplification to detect pathogens, allowing the detection to occur in a very low-power handheld instrument. This platform is not only easier for farmers to work with in the field, but because it is gene-based, it also can provide highly precise typing of the isolated pathogen. For example, it can alert to a specific highly virulent strain of a pathogen, whereas traditional immuno-based tests—similar to a pregnancy test—will often lump together many closely related strains whether they are harmful or not.

Diagenetix’s compact mobile technology can be used for detection of fastidious organisms such as the citrus greening organism, which cannot be cultured and for which no immuno-based solutions exist. The estimated cost: $500 for the instrument.

Monsanto employee using a single seed offloader.
Photo: Monsanto

Major agricultural disease organisms include cereal and soybean rusts; Ralstonia solanacearum, affecting a wide variety of plant species; the citrus greening organism; and the virus that causes foot and mouth disease in animals, Jenkins says. In a recent field test in Guatemala, Kubota used the device to detect a quarantine strain of the bacteria Ralstonia solanacearum in potato tissue within 15 minutes, without ever leaving the field. Diagenetix is also working with animal applications as well, planning trials of the device in several California egg farms to test for Salmonella. Further tests and funding are needed before the product will be ready for commercial production, Jenkins says.

“Most of these pathogens are nearly impossible to eradicate,” he says. “Once they get into a field, the farmer really can’t stop them. For example, Ralstonia can live in the soil for a long time, and it can render that field unsuitable for growing certain crops for years. High-consequence animal diseases such as foot and mouth disease can survive and spread on a variety of wildlife species once established in an area.”

By identifying specific pathogens earlier, farmers and food processors can more effectively work to manage the disease and minimize the risk of widespread outbreak, as well as understand underlying problems with productivity, Shibata said.

“Oftentimes diseases exist which can ultimately result in diminished yield and quality, but which do not result in immediately observable symptoms. With our detection platform, farmers no longer have to wait to react to physical symptoms, but can accurately and quickly identify and resolve problems earlier,” he says. “I see this as a management tool more than just a means of complying with increased regulations related to food safety and security.”

Growing Precision

If the Midwestern U.S. is the corn capital of the world, Hawai‘i is most certainly the crop’s modern birthplace.

Kaua‘i is home to four seed corn companies—Pioneer, BASF, Syngenta and DOW—collectively employing more than 400 people. And nearly every variety of corn currently produced in the past three years by Monsanto, the world’s largest agricultural biotechnology company, can trace its roots back to a 270-acre research facility opened in 2009 on Maui.

“People look at corn and think of it as just corn, says Dr. Frederick Perlak, vice president of Monsanto’s research and business operations in Hawai‘i. Yet, “They all have different traits, different characteristics. There are thousands of different kinds of varieties.”

Employees at Monsanto’s Maui facility. INSET: Using a handheld computer in the field.
Photo: Monsanto

Corn is the largest crop produced in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with more than 70 million acres harvested each year. The seed research Monsanto is conducting on Maui helps determine characteristics for corn that will grow best in different types of environments around the world.

For example, researchers can see if there is a susceptibility to disease in standing water and develop types of corn that do better in these areas.

“As a farmer, you want to squeeze the most out of every acre that you can because that’s your profitability,” Perlak says. “You cannot give those margins out, the seed is expensive, water is expensive, labor is expensive and you can’t lose money because you are on the razor’s edge all the time.”

Monsanto bar codes each packet of seed and uses GPS tracking on its planting equipment to show exactly where those seeds are planted. Ninety percent of Monsanto’s Pi‘ilani farm is devoted to corn research, while the remaining portion is planted with soybeans.

Perlak says. “Anything that we can do to increase the validity of the data that we generate is well worth it. And we will spend a lot of money on equipment to get it right. A big part of our operations is that we have to get it right.”

SOURCE: National Agricultural Statistics Service, Hawai‘i Dept. of Agriculture

To grow its seed crops, Monsanto uses nearly 300,000 gallons of water a day at the Pi‘ilani facility. Most of that is R-1 wastewater—a step below potable water—distributed to crops via a drip-irrigation system.

“There are challenges that come with using recycled water,” Perlak says. “Things like making sure that you are mitigating salt accumulation in the soil. Those require high-tech solutions and constant monitoring.”

New corn varieties take about 8 to 12 years to produce, Perlak says. The primary seed crop—accounting for more than 96 percent of the industry in 2008—grown in Hawai‘i is corn, all of which is exported, according to a 2009 report commissioned by the Hawai‘i Farm Bureau Federation (HFBF) and funded by the Hawai‘i Crop Improvement Association (HCIA).

Hawai‘i ’s seed crop industry generated an estimated $247 million in economic value in 2010, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture. It’s an industry that has shown a dramatic increase in value since emerging 50 years ago, due in large part to Hawai‘i’s year-round growing season, the availability of a highly skilled workforce, and access to natural resources such as land and water, the HFBF-HCIA report states. It accounts for more than 22 percent of all agricultural jobs in the state. Monsanto, which started its Hawai‘i operations in 1968, now employs more than 400 people on Maui alone.

This competitive advantage has resulted in the location of five major companies that comprise the seed crop industry, according to Perlak, with the HFBF-HCIA report noting anticipated increasing economic and fiscal contributions to the state’s economy, agriculture, life sciences and high-tech sectors.


 

Not Child’s Play

After months of research and after-school meetings, hundreds of students from schools throughout Hawai‘i gathered at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center in early December to present new advancements in food science and safety as they competed on the state level of the 2011 Hawai‘i FIRST LEGO League “Food Factor” challenge.

For the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students of Team International Deep-Fried Buffet, those months of work would boil down to a five-minute presentation on using DNA modification to mitigate the devastating effects of the Khapra beetle on rice crops.

“Because two-thirds of the world’s population eats rice, if we solve this problem, we can help that much of the world be safer and healthier,” says Punahou School eighth-grader and team co-captain Shannon Kwock.

The Khapra beetle is one of the top 100 invasive insects worldwide, typically infecting rice once it is stored, decreasing the total weight of a shipment by up to 70 percent.

“We found if we could genetically engineer the rice, farmers wouldn’t have to keep spending money on pesticides,” says Punahou School seventh-grader and team co-captain Jonathan Zerez.

The team’s efforts earned them a project presentation award at the state level, and, like other inventions from the competition, could possibly result in a patent application, says team advisor Ann Kwock.

Part of a larger global program, the nonprofit Hawai‘i FIRST LEGO League started in 2003 with six teams and has since grown to encompass 206 teams with more than 2,000 students ranging from the fourth through the eighth grade. The projects in this year’s challenge, which focused on food safety, included combating inefficient refrigeration of food products and an advanced water filtration system.

As part of the competition, students also build and program a small autonomous robot using a LEGO Mindstorms NXT kit to complete several food-related missions.

Hawai‘i FIRST LEGO League founder and president Sara Tamayose, a retired Mililani Middle School teacher, works to build support for the annual statewide competitions. The program costs more than $40,000 per year, relying on the support of donors and grants.

“The teams keep raising the bar,” she says. “Many teachers have seen it is a great way to promote critical thinking, innovative problem solving and team collaboration.” 

–J.S.

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