Nearly 2,500 miles from the nearest continent, Hawaii spends up to $ 3 billion annually importing more than 80% of its food – a dilemma that government Community leaders, economists, farmers, food buyers, and community activists have long tried to find a solution.
Things weren’t always so bleak.
For centuries, native Hawaiians ran a self-sufficient farming system that featured thriving fish ponds and the production of taro, bananas, pigs, chickens, and sweet potatoes.
But with the arrival of the Westerners, much of the farmland turned into sprawling pineapple and sugar cane plantations that exploited cheap land and cheap labor to produce goods that were largely shipped out of the state.
In the 1960s, only about half of the state’s fruit and vegetable supply was produced locally – a major milestone in the long decline of Hawaii’s food sovereignty. Researchers have found that an island needs to grow at least 50% of its staple food – foods like rice, ulu, potatoes, wheat – in order to be self-sufficient in the event of a disaster.
The coronavirus pandemic, which increased the risk of ship disruption and fears of food shortages, has only exacerbated the archipelago’s vulnerability.
To reinvigorate the goal of restoring self-sufficiency, it is helpful to examine what has changed in the half century since Hawaii last produced roughly half of its food.
As society seeks to strengthen the state’s agricultural future, experts stress that Hawaii cannot simply fall back on the sustainable food system of the past.
“We’re not in the same environment,” said Noa Lincoln, assistant professor of native plants and cultivation systems at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “We have to deal with challenges that our ancestors didn’t have to face – new types of weeds and pests, and rodents and diseases that just didn’t exist.”
“Our ancestors developed their farming practices and methods in a really different setting,” he said. “And there is literally no going back.”
Self-sufficiency in the 21st century requires a new system based on the sustainable values that guided Hawaii’s pre-Western food system, but also modern tools like high-tech indoor farming, Lincoln said.
Over-reliance on imports began in the 1960s
Although Hawaii’s sugar plantations reached peak production in the 1960s, the decade also marked the beginning of their long decline.
Statehood in 1959 led to workers’ rights, which increased labor costs on the plantations. Sugar and pineapple companies responded by relocating their activities abroad. Thousands of acres of one of the most viable farmlands was gradually being lost to development to support a new tourism economy.
With the decline of the plantations, diversified agriculture grew. But also Hawaii’s reliance on food imports – a response to rising demand from an emerging tourism sector that has quickly usurped agriculture as the state’s economic engine.
Local agriculture could not meet the increasing demand for large and constant quantities of food for the supply of hotels and other facilities.
To this day, the small farms that make up the bulk of all farms in Hawaii strive for economies of scale. Around 87% of the state’s 7,328 farms generate less than $ 50,000 a year.
“One of the biggest problems is how difficult it is to be a farmer in Hawaii – especially to make money as a farmer,” said Angela Fa’anunu, a tourism professor at the Hilo University of Hawaii who worked on 10 acres in the Growing breadfruit near Hilo.
Additionally, farmers can find it difficult to manage inconsistency between county and state regulations governing farming activities.
For example, although lawmakers passed state law in 2012 allowing farmers to sell their farm produce on farm land, until recently some farmers were unable to do so due to conflicting zoning rules.
“The systems in place, the guidelines themselves, limit a farmer’s productivity,” Fa’anunu said. “Politics itself is supposed to protect agricultural land, but it can be so restrictive that it makes it really difficult for a farmer to just do something.”
Farmers need more support, incentives
Proponents claim that Hawaii would benefit more than just food sovereignty if more food was grown for local consumption: healthier diets, a deeper connection between nature and society, beautification of lifeandscape.
Replacing food imports with Hawaiian-grown alternatives would also boost the island chain’s economy.
However, the slow pace of progress has frustrated many farmers, spearheading challenges ranging from high land costs to zoning to infrastructure problems.
Many experts agree that more government support is needed to rejuvenate local food production.
The state formed Agribusiness Development Corp. in the early 1990s to devise a new plan for Hawaii’s agricultural future. Over the past three decades, the state has given the ADC nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.
But a damning report from the state auditor’s office At the beginning of this year, the ADC achieved little. The state has never really figured out what its post-plantation farming system should be like.
“I find it depressing when I go to a grocery store and the ginger root comes from Brazil,” said Bruce Mathews, professor of soil science at Hilo UH.
“And it’s not better quality, but it (costs) so much less (money) than what people could sell it for if it were grown locally. So, without changing some of the guidelines here, I don’t see how we’re going to move the needle for local food production. “
Today less than 1% of the state budget is devoted to agriculture, while the plantations, which were so profitable in their prime, have been backed by generous government incentives.
Reintroducing agricultural tax breaks could be key to improving food security, Mathews said.
“If the state is serious about improving local food production, we need to recognize that most food around the world is subsidized to some extent,” Mathews said. “We have to make it more attractive for people to get into food production so that someone thinks, ‘I’d rather go into farming than work at McDonalds.'”
To do that, Hawaii must invest in agricultural parks, irrigation systems, and distribution facilities, with the same enthusiasm with which it has developed infrastructure and facilities to support tourism, said Glenn Teves, an advisor to the University of Hawaii on Molokai, the taro and grows tropical fruits on his 10 acre Hawaiian homestead farm.
“It is not enough to make land available for agriculture,” said Teves. “If you are serious about developing agriculture, you need to look at the bigger picture and create an infrastructure similar to that of tourism: airport, convention center, hotels, scenic views.”
Community opposition slows down Big Ag’s production
Another major hurdle is the fierce community opposition to some planned agricultural projects, such as dairy farms, according to Mathews.
For example, in the Big Island, residents were upset when they learned that a dairy had used GMO corn to feed the cows.
The dairy ended up paying environmental fines after being sued by a community group that claimed the owners violated the Clean Water Act after residents claimed they found bacteria in brown water downstream of the facility.
The dispute ultimately put the Big Island dairy out of business.
In Kauai, a five-year attempt to build a dairy to reduce the state’s reliance on imported milk crashed, in part due to residents’ concerns about the possibility of the dairy causing foul smells and flies against the wind on beaches and hotel pools the south coast could send.
According to Mathews, environmental compliance and population reluctance is an issue not only for dairy farmers, but for many types of large farming projects in Hawaii as well.
“I feel like when we become a suburban and urban society, we become more eco-sanctimonious or more eco-imperialist,” Mathews said. “In other words, we don’t want noise, pesticides, and pollution in our own garden – but we don’t mind paying for food imported from other places.”
“Hawaii grownFunded in part by grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Ulupono Fund, the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Marisla Fund, and the Frost Family Foundation.
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