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Henry Curtis

Can O'ahu's available farm land support the entire population?

Last year one of my professors in the Geography department at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa asked my geographic information systems class to figure out how many people could be fed solely by resources available on O’ahu. We had to see if it would be possible to sustain a population of 900,000 if all food and fuel supplies were cut off. A formidable task, to say the least. We were to use land data available from the state geographic mapping office, as well as research on nutritional needs and crop yields to come up with a solution (if a solution was feasible).

So how much land do we have? It’s fairly easy to come up with general numbers, but due to convoluted and conflicting classification schemes, it’s harder to come up with exact figures for how much land is actually available for agriculture.

Legally it goes like this: In 1961 the state of Hawai’i passed the Land Use Law, which classifies land into four classes: conservation land, agricultural land, urban land and rural land. There is very little land classified as rural across the Islands–and none on O’ahu.

The law also set up the Land Use Commission to review all petitions to change the classification of land. Over the past four decades there has been a predictable trend towards urbanization, though many would say that it has been a controlled transition. In 1975 there were approximately 84,000 acres of urban land on O’ahu, out of a total of 386,188 acres.

At the same time there were 144,286 acres of agricultural lands and 156,920 acres of conservation land. By 2005, 16,000 acres had been converted from agricultural lands to urban lands. (Conservation land seems to remain relatively constant, possibly because the terrain of most conservation land does not present an obvious alternative use). Here’s what we learned:

Year Urban Land Agriculture Land Conservation Land

1975 84,093 144,286 156,920

1984 87,895 143,434 154,859

2002 99,686 129,884 156,618

2005 100,730 128,839 156,619

As the table shows, agricultural lands are definitely on the decline, dropping by about 11 percent over the past 30 years. Over the same period, the population has increased by more than 200,000

As it stands now, we probably could feed ourselves, but it would require a great deal of coordination and some creativity in terms of land maximization. A number of different metrics exist, but a good rule of thumb is that under the very best of circumstances, one acre of farmland can meet the basic nutritional requirements of six people. Thus with the current amount of zoned agricultural land a very determined O’ahu could feed around 770,000 people in a doomsday scenario. This could be supplemented with home gardens –though this wouldn’t account for very much land–and cultivation of open areas such as school yard and other open areas. For example, non-beach parklands amount to approximately 16,000 acres. (According to the Trust for Public Land’s Center for Park Excellence, Honolulu is at the bottom of ranked cities in terms of parks, with 1.6 percent of municipal area. Jacksonville, Fla., has 26 percent of its municipal area dedicated to parks). Additional nutrition could come from rejuvenating some of the old Hawaiian fish ponds and converting Pearl Harbor to aquaculture uses. We looked at hunting on conservation lands, foraging for berries and even whaling. And we just made it.

We are moving away from being able to support ourselves under any definition of terms, and while the conversion of land seems to be a controlled process, it is something to be concerned about. Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, a Hawaii-focused environment and community action group, says that many developers think land is being held in trust for future development. Empty fields are misallocated resources, and development is progress, meeting the housing needs for a growing O’ahu.

Curtis claims there is a constant encroachment onto ag lands, but it’s not so much the thief-in-the-night kind as the legal loophole kind. Curtis explains, ‘The problem is that the same type of land that is good for agriculture is good for housing.’

There are various ways to build low-density housing on land zoned for agriculture; this has been more widespread on the neighbor islands than on O’ahu, but there are still huge houses out there sitting on agricultural land because fruit trees may someday be harvested.

An even bigger hurdle in terms of agricultural self-sufficiency is probably the availability of farmers. Currently a great deal of land zoned as ag lies fallow. It’s easy to understand, then, why developers get wide eyed at the site of vacant land potentially worth millions of dollars. It’s seen as a wasted resource.

But agriculture is the law of the land, so to speak. The state constitution declares that ‘the state shall conserve and protect agricultural lands, promote diversified agriculture, increase agricultural self-sufficiency and assure the availability of agriculturally suitable lands.’

Hawai’i is in the midst of an agricultural shift, and while the production of non-traditional crops is on the increase, the whole system is geared towards large-scale corporate agriculture. But it takes time to make the transition from corporate agriculture to smaller scale entrepreneurial farms. More importantly, though, it takes support.

Would-be farmers are constrained by a number of factors, including uncertain leases, lack of buffers between ag land and newly zoned urban lands, a lack of training and support for new agricultural ventures and decrepit irrigation systems. There are initiatives working to overcome some of these obstacles, including the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa.