Haku Mo‘olelo – The Maui News

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By EDWIN TANJI, City Editor

POSTED: November 6, 2009

Hawaii set the standards for commercial pineapple, but that does not assure the islands’ standing in the world’s marketplace.

As with any other industrial producer, Hawaii’s pineapple industry needed to be competitive. Both in pineapple and sugar, Hawaii’s agronomists developed farming techniques and hybrid strains that improved productivity to keep ahead of operations with lower farming costs in competing countries.

But farming techniques and hybrid cultivars are transferrable; the better the Hawaii agricultural industry got in using technology to improve yields, the better the world got. What Hawaii could not transfer to regions competing with the isle-grown product were its agricultural wage scales and benefits.

Advocates for global free trade routinely downplay if not ignore differences in employee costs and the reasons for them. Global-trade advocates declare that if a producer is more efficient, production should be shifted to that producer, wherever it may be. "More efficient" generally translates as producing the same product – whether it be cotton fabric, computer chips, sugar or pineapples – at a lower cost to the buyer. The beneficiary in the global free trade model is the consumer, who gets the product at a lower cost.

What usually isn’t calculated in the global-trade model is the cost to the labor force where production is lost and the quality of product when production is shifted.

Maui Pineapple Co.’s leadership floundered over product development geared to offset higher Hawaii production costs with higher-quality products – and fell short. At the same time, Maui Pine remained the only U.S. pineapple producer without an overseas division to offset losses in U.S. production with gains in overseas production.

According to Food Market Exchange (www.foodmarketexchange.com), the list of "World Major Producers" of pineapple includes Dole Thailand Ltd., Del Monte Philippines Inc., Del Monte Kenya Ltd. and DOLEFIL, among dozens of major pineapple canning operations in Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and across the tropical belt from Southeast Asia to Africa to Central and South America.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (www.fao.org) reports the world’s largest pineapple producers are Thailand (1.7 million metric tons in 2003), the Philippines (1.65 million m/t), Brazil (1.4 million m/t), China (1.32 million m/t) and India (1.1 million m/t).

Hawaii in 2003 produced 286,000 metric tons of pineapple. In 2006, Hawaii production was down to 168,000 metric tons – which was before Maui Pine shut down its Kahului cannery.

A primary difference among the countries ranked as major producers involves wage rates. There are no specific data for farmworkers in the countries involved, but statistical information on annual wages for the various countries is suggestive. Thai workers are shown in databases to have annual wages of $2,300 to $3,800; in the Philippines, workers average $2,000 to $3,000; in Brazil, workers average $3,800 to $5,000.

Department of Labor data show U.S. farmworkers average $19,000 a year and Hawaii farmworkers average $22,800 – not including the costs of employee benefits running 50 to 80 percent of annual wages. ILWU members in Hawaii’s plantations were doing better than the average. They have taken pay cuts, but it’s clear Hawaii plantations cannot match labor costs of rival plantations in the equatorial belt.

What’s less clear is whether those rival plantations will maintain product and production quality of the Hawaii growers. The FAO report notes that pineapple in 2000 represented 51 percent of the world trade in tropical fruits. It also notes that agricultural researchers in Hawaii developed standards for appearance and edibility of commercial fruit. A standard processing device, the Ginaka machine, was developed in Hawaii. Sweet varieties being grown for the fresh-fruit market were developed in Hawaii as hybrids of the Cayena lisa plant.

Hawaii was a leader in developing farming technology that made pineapple a world commodity. Hawaii is on the sidelines in using the technology to produce the commodity.

* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at hakumoolelo@earthlink.net. "Haku Mo’olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.

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