Cover Story

Beyond the bumpersticker, is Hawai‘i’s ag industry committed to local food production? Should it be?


Cover image for Aug 18, 2010

In a University of Hawaii lab, researchers are isolating and studying papaya genes. In central Maui, fields of sugarcane are cultivated, the stalks harvested, processed for sugar and exported. In a Hilo nursery, anthuriums and orchids are packed into gift boxes for shipment to the neighbor islands, the continental United States and Japan. On pastureland on Big Island, ranchers are herding grazing cattle, some destined for feedlots on the continental United States, some kept back for the local market. All this falls under the big, perhaps unwieldy, umbrella of “local agriculture.” While they’re probably not the images that come to mind when we shop at farmers’ markets or pick up our community-supported agriculture boxes, these examples are a significant part of Hawaii’s agricultural landscape.

Eat Local = Local Ag?

These days, a lot of people are talking about “eating local” and equating it with “supporting local ag,” but is it really the same thing? Browsing the exhibits at the recent Hawaii State Farm Fair suggest otherwise. The Ono Revolution petition, which debuted at the fair, invited petitioners to shift 10 percent of food purchases to Hawaii producers as a step toward “reinvesting in, rebuilding and protecting our local food system,” implying that supporting local ag involves buying from farmers who grow food for Hawaii consumption. A separate exhibition space at the fair featured seed companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Syngenta, companies that are based on the continental United States and don’t grow food, at least directly. The main purposes of the seed crops (mostly corn and some soy) grown in Hawaii is for research, with the end products being animal feed, ethanol or industrial food purposes. The research provides a basis for the corn and soy that often ends up in processed food as vegetable oil, starches and sugars. Supporting these companies and their work in Hawaii is a big part of what it means to “supporti local ag.”

It’s easy to see the rationale: “The seed industry accounts for 30 percent of the spending in agriculture and about 30 percent of the employment, but overall, less than 5 percent of the total arable land,” says Fred Perlak, Monsanto’s vice president of research and business operations in Hawaii.

Looking at the larger picture of agriculture in Hawaii, seed crops, and flowers and nursery products contribute to half of the total agricultural value. In terms of land use, sugarcane, processed into sugar and fed to the export market, uses the largest percentage of harvested cropland. In terms of agricultural value, Hawaii’s two largest value crops are not food, and our largest crop in terms of land use is destined for export (and can only in a child’s dream be considered “food”). Outside of harvested cropland, a large portion of agricultural land is pasture for raising cattle, and most of the cattle go to feedlots on the continental United States.

The local agriculture landscape consists of much more than the fruits and vegetables we buy from local farmers. In fact supporting the farmers who grow food for Hawaii is to support the smallest sector of Hawaii agriculture.

All roads lead to food

“Right now, there are 47 uses for properties in agriculture,” says Travis Overley, a farmer, self-described “sustainable country lobbyist” and operator of Aina Ono farmstands on the North Shore. “Only one of those uses is for food production. They’re everything from energy to forestry to invasive species studies, golf course turf, there’s all kinds of things…I think that if you were to give a poll out to the people in the state, and you gave them that list of 47 [and asked] which is the most important, you would have 90 percent say that food production is the most important.” Though Overley’s poll is hypothetical, there’s evidence that he isn’t the only one who thinks local food production should be a priority.

In her 2009 State of the State address, Gov. Lingle highlighted agriculture, and specifically food production, as one of the administration’s top priorities: “Hawaii produces only 15 percent of its own food. That’s not acceptable and shouldn’t be for the state. We need to take action now to increase food self-sufficiency for Hawaii and preserve and strengthen the agriculture industry for future generations.”

Lingle cites the reasons for supporting local food production: “If we each make an effort to buy more locally produced food, we will be contributing to our economic recovery, helping Hawaii farmers lower their unit costs, and protecting our open spaces. Agriculture keeps Hawaii green, it recharges our aquifers and promotes a healthy lifestyle and good nutrition for families. It also diversifies our economy and supports small businesses and rural communities.”

It’s arguable that local food production isn’t the only agriculture outfit that can accomplish these goals, as illustrated by aforementioned ag industries like research and export markets. So is it reasonable that food production should drive the local ag conversation?

For Overley, there are many reasons it should: Local food production can provide the health and nutrition benefits that other local ag industries may not. Also, it increases food security by increasing the supply of food the Islands’ grow, which would be important during a disaster that halted the import of food. There’s also the potential economic growth in investing in local food production.

“For every $1 million spent on food, 26 jobs are created,” he says, citing a College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) and Department of Agriculture (DOH) study. “In Hawaii, we’re importing $3.7 billion to $4.2 billion of food. It’s interesting that you have a lobby so powerful (the seed corn industry) that they can have the ability to influence their interest, which is a $300 million potential interest–currently $176 million–at the cost of food security and, say, $3 billion to $4 billion in food.”

Working together

So if the public and government are interested in increasing local food production, do they need to look at food production separately from the umbrella of local agriculture, or should they continue to group all types of agriculture together?

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA) suggests that all local agriculture is connected. According to Sandra Kunimoto, chairwoman of the HDOA, there are “more similarities than differences” in the agricultural industry.

“There are so many reasons why the industry needs to pull together and work together,” she says. “When you talk about supporting agriculture, food is only one aspect of it. Certainly buying local food is a good thing…and while something like a nursery crop may not be something that you eat, as being part of the industry, whether it’s protection of land or support of the infrastructure, then supporting your local nursery industry is supporting ag in general.”

Infrastructure is cited as a common issue on which the agriculture industry needs to work together. Currently, no infrastructure exists to support a $3 billion to $4 billion local food production industry.

Mae Nakahata, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation (HFBF), writes in an e-mail, “As large scale operations disappeared, care of much of the State’s irrigation systems have fallen to disrepair. This is a good example of the coexistence where large operators have the resources to manage and maintain the basic infrastructure agriculture needs. Small growers or even the State and County governments face challenges with the day to day operations needed to keep large systems in good operating condition. One can focus on the differences but Hawaii Farm Bureau believes in focusing on ways the various sectors of our industry can work together for mutual benefit.”

HFBF’s main goals, according to its executive director, Luella Costales, include food security and increasing consumer demand for local products. But the HFBF’s constituents include landscapers and food manufacturers in addition to farmers and ranchers, meaning Costales’ day-to-day duties may include attending neighborhood board meetings to discuss a second Kapiolani Community College Farmers’ Market; submitting testimony in favor of leaf blowers, which landscapers see as essential to their work; and testifying against the ban on selling ice cream in schools on behalf of local ice cream producers.

She sees all these tasks as fulfilling the ultimate agenda of making ag viable in Hawaii.

“There’s some differences, but a lot of common ground, a lot of common goals,” she says. “I’m hoping that we can focus on what we have in common, especially when we’re gathered for legislation, to be able to go down there with a stronger voice to represent what we do have in common…I think our ag community out here needs as much strength as it can…Everyone’s struggling as a business. So many issues, so many challenges, struggling to survive. We may not get to that (survival) point if we start focusing on differences. Right now some of the basics of farming and agriculture are at risk.”

She points to issues like access to land, water and labor.

Getting priorities straight

The Hawaii Farmers Union (HFU), an organization that serves the interests of small farms, differs in opinion from the HDOA and HFBF. “Our primary goal would be to build the local food system and local food economy,” says Lydi Morgan, vice president of HFU. “Which means our priority is growing food and other agricultural products for local consumption. I believe that the state should set priorities instead of lumping all farming activities under the term ‘agriculture.’ We need to start to distinguish between them and set priorities as a state. What do the people in Hawaii need, what are our highest priorities.”

Overley believes coexistence with the other industries, including biotechnology, is possible, but argues that currently, there is little stimulus for local food production.

“There’s no incentive, because of the current situation with biotechnology and their influence in the state, for a farmer to grow any food at all. A farmer has to deal with pests, deal with getting the product to market…food safety, getting sued for food safety…Whereas if a farmer just grew seed corn, then they just go out there, let the corn do it’s job, have it harvested and that’s it. It disincentivizes local food production.”

Gary Maunakea-Forth of MAO Organic Farms agrees. “You can call agriculture anything,” he says. “You can call it the guy up the road growing grass, plenty orchid growers here, nurseries…It’s all agriculture…You can extend it any way. But what I’m saying is, if people want to grow food, the other agricultural things impact the possibility.”

He sees the seed industry as a continuation of the industrial agriculture model, which fueled sugar and pineapple production and contributed to Hawaii’s current food insecurity.

“I don’t think enough time and energy and thought has been put into what that means for us as a state–what the preceding 150 years did for us and what the possibility is now, investing more energy, resources, manpower, workforce and what it means for the future. As people step back and take a look at it, they realize that the past 150 years has left us really food insecure…The very presence of the industrial model in Hawaii has stopped us or caused us to grow less food and have less farmers…It contributed to our dependence on imported food because it spurred land changes, it spurred workforce changes, it spurred water changes…Foodwise it doesn’t get us growing food.

“In Hawaii, we’re this tiny microcosm enclave of what’s going on and yet we have this giant thing going on in GMO seed production. It could completely dominate things in the next 20 to 25 years. What could happen is it could become too expensive for the GMO industry to grow seed here just like sugar found it was too expensive to grow here, just like pineapple found it was too expensive to grow here. Then they’ll move off again…The alternative for me is for us to invest in real food production. Investing in people who want to farm, investing in education programs that encourage people to want to be farm and farm technically very well and sustainably with all kinds of technical abilities to be environmentally friendly…[Right now], there’s no real investment in farming for food.”

All this suggests that despite the desire to build a cohesive local agricultural movement, the reality is that all is not well under the ag tent. Most involved in local agriculture believe coexistence among all the ag industries is possible; however, the lack of a concrete plan and particularly one to increase local food production appears to be missing from the conversation.