Bayer Scapes
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Bayer Scapes

First job: sustainability lessons in Hawaii

By Paola Espinoza, Nursery Manager, Crop Science, Bayer U.S.

Paola Espinoza (left) embraces all that Hawaii has to offer, including
snorkeling, sailing, whale-watching, cliff-diving, hiking, waterfalls,
the beach, the tropical jungle, and more.

Two things were very important to my mom when she was raising us: education and sustainability. Growing up in Mexico, I had a pretty humble upbringing. As a family of five, we lived in a tiny house of two bedrooms so that my parents could afford to send us to private school.

Beginning in Kindergarten, my classes were half in English, half in Spanish (which allowed me to be fluent in both languages), and for middle school, my mom picked a school that specialized in sustainability, including classes on composting and gardening, and lessons in saving natural resources.

Living in a third world country where environmental concerns usually are not a big focus, my mom was ahead of her time. At home, she urged us to conserve water and energy, and her commitment to sustainability really stuck with me.

Stepping outside my comfort zone

My mom worked for the Department of Education and my dad was an agricultural engineer. After high school, I knew I wanted to study engineering, but I was not sure which area. When a classmate mentioned Biosystems Engineering, I researched and found it incorporated a lot about sustainability, which really resonated with me, and thus I decided to study it in college.

In 2013, I graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in Biosystems Engineering, and began applying for jobs. Coming from Mexico, I needed to turn my student visa into a U.S. work permit, so I went a little overboard — applying to 70-plus jobs — to ensure I’d be able to stay in the United States and work in the field I had studied.

An interesting opportunity came up with Monsanto (now part of Bayer) to work at the company’s Maui Technology Center. That’s right… in Hawaii! Believe it or not, I did not jump for this job at first, because I was not a big fan of the beach, but I have always enjoyed stepping outside of my comfort zone, so ultimately I accepted the offer (and ultimately fell in love with the beach)!

I work as a Nursery Manager at Bayer, where I help improve the next generation of corn seed that will be planted by farmers around the world. Maui averages 70 to 80-degree weather year-round, with a lot of sun. Sunny days translate into growing-degree units, so the sunnier it is, the more growing-degree units plants accumulate and the faster they mature. Thanks to the weather, we can grow up to four crop cycles a year here; so what would take about 10 years in the mainland United States, we can do in about three-and-a-half years in Maui.

I could not have asked for a better first job. Hawaii is paradise; everything grows here! And the Hawaiian culture revolves around thinking about where you live and caring for the oceans and the incredible natural environment. It is a perfect fit for someone raised with a strong commitment to sustainability.

I soon learned, however, some Hawaiians are opposed to GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). In 2014, just a year after I moved to Hawaii, the county of Maui introduced a bill against GMOs. The debate surrounding the bill was so heated that Monsanto employees in Hawaii didn’t even feel comfortable mentioning they worked for Monsanto anymore.

Thinking through sustainability

While this was hard for my colleagues, it was potentially devastating for me. I had been fortunate to secure a short-term work visa with Monsanto through the complicated federal lottery system, so any disruption to my current job most likely would result in my inability to stay and work in my field in the United States.

While I loved my job, I admittedly was new to agriculture and GMOs. I realized I would need to educate myself to have informed conversations on the topic and to feel sincere about being an advocate for modern agriculture. I took a deep dive into agriculture, not just genetically, but what organic agriculture looks like, what conventional agriculture looks like, and what agriculture looks like around the world.

What I learned pretty quickly in my scientific review is there is a lot of misinformation about modern agriculture and GMOs. GMO crops can play a big role in sustainable farming, and in sustaining our food supply for future generations. They are an important tool to meet the needs of a growing population while limiting any impact on the environment.

Genetically modified traits like insect-resistance and drought-resistance enable farmers to grow more food on less land, with fewer chemicals and less water and fuel. The excellent weed control of genetically modified crops means farmers can till the soil much less often, which contributes to improved soil health and water retention, reduced runoff, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from farm machinery.

Researchers are working to develop GMO crops that help plants more efficiently absorb fertilizers, enabling farmers to apply less fertilizer, reducing nutrient pollution in our waters. Insect resistant Bt crops provide more targeted pest control, allowing important non-target insects like bees, butterflies, and ladybugs to flourish; thus enhancing biodiversity.

Another benefit of GMOs that hits close to home in Hawaii is the ability of GMOs to offer options to protect crops where other options have failed. Many years ago, the Hawaiian papaya was threatened by the ringspot virus that nearly wiped out Hawaii’s papaya production. Most farmers and scientists believed papayas were doomed, since nothing worked to stop the spread of the disease, including pesticides, moving where they were grown, or destroying infected trees.

A Hawaiian researcher, Dennis Gonsalves, inserted a gene from the ring spot virus into the genetic code of the papaya, making it genetically resistant to ringspot disease, similar to the way vaccines work to protect humans from diseases. Gonsalves’ work saved the papaya industry, as there is still no other method to control this disease.

Importantly, GMO papaya and other GMO foods are safe to eat. That is the overwhelming consensus of scientific experts and authorities around the world, including the World Health Organization, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and American Medical Association. Extensive studies continue to be conducted on genetically modified seeds and crops to ensure their ongoing safety.

Lessons in agriculture

This experience at the start of my career challenged me to really understand the work I was doing and determine whether it was consistent with my beliefs. Obviously, with my dad being an agricultural engineer, we have had many conversations on the subject, which has been kind of cool. It was important to me not just to learn my new job, but basically to learn a whole industry.

Now that I know more about modern agriculture, I am convinced the work Bayer is doing is essential to the future sustainability of our food and planet. At work, everyone knows if there is a STEM presentation about agriculture needed for a local school, I’m the person for the job. I want to share the sustainability message surrounding GMOs far and wide, so that others will be inspired to understand the science of this and other promising technologies in agriculture.



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