According to numerous reports Hawaii imports about 90% of its food and exports approximately $3 billion a year paying for it.
All will agree I hope, that reversing this statistic so that 90% of our food is grown in Hawaii, and all of that money is circulated in our local economy – is a worthy goal.
Clearly, we have the land and the water to support our basics – meat, vegetables, fruit, and starches.
Meat – Fortunately, due to the pioneering efforts of local ranchers, the locally grown grass-fed beef component seems to be on track. It goes without saying that the market for hamburger alone in the state of Hawaii is massive. Think of all the fast-food restaurants, think of all the hotels – and think about something the government has control over, which is the food purchased by schools, prisons, and state hospitals.
Vegetables – A wide assortment of green leafy and other veggies are also grown through-out Hawaii in back-yard farms and on larger tracks of land.
Fruit – In my yard, growing almost effortlessly on a quarter acre of land we have a consistent supply of papaya, banana, star-fruit, mango, orange, lemons, limes, pineapple, and an occasional dragon-fruit. There are few things more gratifying than eating something every single day that has been grown in your own yard. While I have some understanding of the challenges that commercial farmers face when attempting to grow and distribute larger quantities of fruit, clearly a wide variety of fruit thrive in our soil, sun, and water.
Starch – I am tempted to say forget rice for a moment, but I am fully aware this suggestion would not be a palatable one. However, without any hesitation at all, I give a full-throated shout-out to ulu (breadfruit)! Trust me on this. My wife and I literally have our “picker” in the car at this moment preparing to head out to a couple of secret locations where the ulu is ready to fall to the ground. While there is a “learning curve” to its preparation – ulu has come to be one of our favorite foods. Taro is the other obvious starch that can be grown in abundance here in Hawaii, is a traditional food source, and highly nutritious.
What about fish? I purposely have left fish off the list. Personally, I have concerns about “fish farming” and even more concerned about the potential for over-fishing of our local waters. So for now, my practice is to buy fish, when available from my local fisher-friends.
So, what is keeping us from growing our own food and feeding ourselves?
Not a whole lot actually. There are really only a handful of core elements that need to be in place – and all can be achieved via basic changes in public policy. As is most often the case the policy changes can be phased in – 10% per year over 10 years and voila, Hawaii has achieved food sustainability.
Some stuff, we as individuals can, should and must do NOW.
If local residents made a concerted effort to ALWAYS shop at the local farmers market, and ALWAYS buy local beef and pork (and fish from local fisher-friends, and eggs when you can get them) – then small local farmers could and would be sustainable. If we who live here, purchased 100% of our fruit, veggies, meat, and starches from local farmers, it would make an incredible difference.
And if our state government required that all (or at least 90%) of food purchased for schools, prisons and state hospitals be locally grown – think what a tremendous market opportunity that would offer for local farmers.
Of course, if the visitor industry and a few fast-food chains made a commitment to spend 90% of their budget on locally produced food – that also would be huge.
Local farmers on all islands are pretty much unanimous in their message to policymakers: They need a steady market for their products and they need access to farm-worker housing options, low cost and long term land leases, and affordable water.
- Farm-worker housing – Policymakers can and must make this happen. Farmers and their workers need to be able to live on their land which is often-times leased and not necessarily zoned for residential use. Some progress has been made on this issue, but the process continues to be far too complex and unwieldy. The challenge for policymakers is to make this easy for “real farmers” but prevent the historical abuse that has resulted in a proliferation of “fake farms” and “transient vacation rentals”.
- Land – Farmers need affordable and long term leases. Unfortunately, Hawaii’s largest private landowners are hesitant to grant the affordable long term leases needed by serious farmers. Policymakers could direct the Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC), a state agency that manages thousands of acres of publicly owned agricultural land, to make local food production their top priority. Today the ADC’s largest tenants are the agrochemical companies whose primary products are not food for local consumption but rather genetically modified corn exported for the eventual production of high fructose corn syrup, ethanol and/or cattle feed.
- Water – Access to affordable water is essential and government has a central role in managing and protecting this public trust resource. Historically large landowners have used agriculture merely as a “front” to preserve their control over water that is ultimately diverted for real estate development. In addition, the negative legacy of pesticide contamination must be avoided. The sugar and pineapple plantations of the past are as guilty as today’s GMO industrial/ag companies. Recent testing of soils, surface streams, near-shore waters, and even our drinking-water aquifers, all show evidence of pesticide contamination caused by large agribusiness. Public policy changes aimed at both preserving water quality and ensuring water availability to farmers who practice regenerative farming methods must be a priority.
Simply making local food production a goal is not enough. Government policy-makers must take action.
First published on 11/20/2019 in The Garden Island newspaper