How Hawaii wasted its food security – and what it takes to get it back


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 Leaders, economists, farmers, grocery buyers, and community activists have long tried to resolve.

It wasn’t always that bad.

For centuries, the native Hawaiians managed a self-sufficient agricultural system that was characterized by flourishing fish ponds and taro, banana, pork, chicken, and sweet potato production.

But with the arrival of the Westerners, much of the farmland was converted into sprawling pineapple and sugar cane plantations that exploited cheap land and cheap labor to produce goods that were mostly 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 such as rice, ulu, potatoes, wheat – in order to be self-sufficient in the event of a disaster.

In the 1960s, Hawaii imported more food for local consumption than it could produce, a trend that accelerated for three decades. Local production of pigs, eggs, milk, chickens and cattle has also declined dramatically since the state was founded. Courtesy: Coffee from Hawaii

The coronavirus pandemic, which increased the risk of ship disruption and fueled fears of food shortages, has only exacerbated the archipelago’s vulnerability.

To add momentum to the goal of regaining self-sufficiency, it is helpful to examine what has changed in the half century since Hawaii last produced about half of its food.

However, as society strives to empower 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 Manoa. “We have to face challenges that our ancestors didn’t have – new types of weeds and pests, rodents and diseases that just didn’t exist.”

“Our ancestors developed their farming practices and methods in an environment that was really different,” he said. “And there is literally no going back.”

But self-sufficiency in the 21st century requires a new system rooted in the sustainable values ​​that governed Hawaii’s pre-Western food system, Lincoln said.

Over-reliance on imports began in the 1960s

Although Hawaii’s sugar plantations peaked in the 1960s, the decade also marked the beginning of their long decline.

Statehood in 1959 resulted in workers’ rights that increased the labor costs of the plantations. Sugar and pineapple companies responded by moving their operations overseas. Thousands of hectares of some of the most viable arable land were gradually being lost to development to support a new tourism-based economy.

Preparing to ship Young Brothers' containers 3.
Hawaii is heavily dependent on imported food. Growing more staple foods in Hawaii will help protect the islands from disruptions in the state’s utility line. Cory Lum / Cvil Beat

As the plantations declined, diversified agriculture grew. But also Hawaii’s reliance on food imports – a response to rising demand from an emerging tourism sector that quickly usurped agriculture as the state’s economic engine.

Local agriculture was unable to meet the growing need for large and constant quantities of food to supply hotels and other facilities.

To this day, the small farms that make up the bulk of all farms in Hawaii struggle for economies of scale. Approximately 87% of the state’s 7,328 farms generate less than $ 50,000 a year.

“One of the biggest problems is how hard it is to be a farmer in Hawaii – especially to make money as a farmer,” said Angela Fa’anunu, professor of tourism at the University of Hawaii Hilo, which operates on 10 acres near Hilo Growing breadfruit.

Additionally, farmers can find it difficult to manage the inconsistency between county and state regulations governing farming activities.

For example, although lawmakers passed federal law in 2012 allowing farmers to sell their farm produce on farm land, some farmers were unable to do so until recently due to conflicting rules for building the county.

“The existing systems, the guidelines themselves, limit a farmer’s production capabilities,” said Fa’anunu. “The guidelines themselves are supposed to protect agricultural land, but they can be so restrictive that they make it really difficult for a farmer to just do something.”

Farmers need more support and incentives

More than food sovereignty, proponents claim that Hawaii would gain many benefits from growing more food for local consumption: healthier diets, a deeper connection between nature and society, and the beautification of lifeandscape.

Replacing food imports with Hawaiian-grown alternatives would also boost the island chain’s economy.

But the slow progress has frustrated many farmers, naming challenges ranging from high land costs to zone and infrastructure problems.

Farmers demonstrated outside the State Capitol on the legislature opening day. They want to be “the year of the farmer” in 2021 and call on the legislature to make more land available for smallholders. Claire Caulfield / Civil Beat

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 Audit Office Earlier this year it was pointed out that the ADC had achieved little. The state has never really figured out what its post-plantation farming system should be like.

“For me it is depressing when I go to the supermarket and the ginger root comes from Brazil,” says Bruce Mathews, dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry & Natural Resource Management and professor of soil science at Hilo UH.

“And it’s not any 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 in local food production. “

Today less than 1% of the state budget is spent on 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 increasing 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 partially subsidized,” said Mathews. “We have to make it more attractive for people to get into food production so that someone thinks, ‘I’d rather go into agriculture than work at McDonalds.'”

To do that, Hawaii must invest in agricultural parks, irrigation systems, and distribution facilities with the same enthusiasm it has shown in developing infrastructure and amenities to support tourism, said Glenn Teves, an expansion agent for the University of Hawaii on Molokai, the taro and tropical Growing 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 the development of agriculture, you have to look at the bigger picture and create an infrastructure similar to that for tourism: airport, convention center, hotels, picturesque views.”

Opposition in the community slows down large Ag production

The community’s fierce opposition to some proposed farm projects like dairy farms is another significant hurdle, Mathews said.

For example, on the Big Island, residents were upset when they learned that a dairy had used GMO corn to feed the cows.

The dairy eventually faced environmental fines after it was sued by a community group that alleged the owners violated the Clean Water Act after local residents claimed they found bacteria in brown water downstream of the facility.

The dispute eventually put the Big Island dairy out of business.

In Kauai, a five-year attempt to start a dairy factory to reduce the state’s reliance on imported milk failed and burned in part due to local residents’ concern over the possibility of the dairy plant sending foul smells and downwind to the south coast and beaches flies to the hotel pools.

Environmental compliance and community disapproval are not only an issue for dairy farmers but also for many types of large-scale farming projects in Hawaii, Mathews said.

“I feel like the more we become a suburban and urban society, the more eco-hypocritical or eco-imperialist we have become,” said Mathews. “In other words, we don’t want noise, pesticides, pollution in our own garden – but we don’t mind paying for food that is imported from other places.”

Hawaii grown“Is funded 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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