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Food for thought

UH vegetable crop extension specialist discusses food self-sufficiency

We know it’s possible to achieve food self-sufficiency in Hawai’i, because it’s been done. The kanaka maoli managed to feed a population comparable to the number of residents inhabiting the Islands today–and supply the ships that followed Capt. James Cook.

But then the kanaka maoli started dying off, the land was divided, water got diverted and subsidized plantation agriculture took hold, growing commodity crops for export. Wetlands were drained, and hotels, golf courses, subdivisions and military bases sprang up.

Now we, and the 7 million hungry guests who visit the Islands year, depend on Matson and the airlines to provide the fixings for our meals. At least 85 percent of our food is imported. And nearly all of the crops grown locally require fertilizers, equipment, chemicals, soil amendments and even seeds brought in from elsewhere.

Modern agriculture is ‘a food system profoundly vulnerable, at every level, to fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices.’ says author Richard Heinberg, who has written extensively about the implications of oil depletion. ‘Both are inevitable.’

That’s why it’s crucial to act now in the Islands to adopt sustainable farming practices, says Hector Valenzuela, who holds a doctorate in vegetable crops and serves as the vegetable crop extension specialist with the University of Hawai’i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR).

‘Production-wise, we could grow most of our food locally. We’ve got the soil, land, climate and knowledge-wise, some of the best farmers anywhere. So we do have the resource base,’ he says.

So far, Valenzuela says, that isn’t happening. He’s seen no ‘white paper on agriculture’ that identifies the best farm lands, what needs to be done to protect them and ‘the steps to take us from here to there.’

And CTAHR, which would seem a likely place for such a movement to take root, is instead moving in the opposite direction, toward biotechnology, Valenzuela says. While the college does offer a few courses and support some projects related to sustainability, there’s no program to train farmers in sustainable or even organic farming practices, or research focused on how to grow crops with few chemicals, he says.

‘When the plantations went out of business, that was a unique opportunity for the state to push toward sustainability, but they didn’t do it,’ Valenzuela says. ‘At the time, the college came in and said, ‘We think biotech is the answer to everything and that’s the direction we’re going to go.”

In the decade since, little has come from that pursuit, save for a genetically modified papaya, and now the state is looking to use agricultural lands to cultivate biofuels, not food.

‘With biofuels, we’re going to grow subsidized crops that use GMOs and it’s going to continue that cycle of dependency, with outside interests controlling the land, the inputs, etc.,’ Valenzuela says. ‘The problem I see is we still have a legacy of plantation agriculture.’

While Valenzuela believes it is possible to successfully conduct sustainable agriculture in the tropics, he says,’ Right now it does look pretty unrealistic, pretty challenging. If it’s going to work, there has to be farmers who want to rotate the land, so we need more land and a variety of crops. On O’ahu, that would be hard because private landowners and the military have so much land. Everyone talks about the economic benefits of the military, but there’s no talk about the opportunities lost of not having that land available for farming, lost cost housing, etc.’

Still, he says, ‘We do have success stories–farmers who have shown it is possible on their own.’ To encourage such enterprises, small farmers may need subsidies for a time.

‘We have been subsidizing the large corporate farmers and society does need to recognize the value of small farmers. It goes to the health of a community.’

Local residents may also need to give up their addiction to convenience products and imported items in favor of food that can be grown in the Islands. Valenzuela says. ‘Like instead of imported white bread, we could eat local root crops. We know chips, we know beer, because of advertising. But people could learn to consume a variety of foods, like all the Filipino and Chinese vegetables.’

Such a shift could even enhance Hawai’i’s tourism, he says. ‘We have visitors from Europe, the West Coast, Japan, who are already tuned in to the environment and health. If we had sustainable agriculture, it would be a beautiful draw.’

Island chefs, too, would benefit from having relationships with local farmers supplying their restaurants, Valenzuela says. ‘You’re not just selling the food, you’re selling the story.’