Thursday, September 08, 2011


Can Hawai`i Agriculture Survive?

By Henry Curtis

Russell Kokubun, then a Senator and now the Director of the Hawai`i Department of Agriculture, spoke at the 2010 Hawai`i State Agricultural Conference (September 23-24, 2010): "The Constitution's very clear, in my mind, particularly after the 1978 Constitutional Convention. The emphasis is on, becoming more self-sufficient, in agriculture.  The issue was also  to identify those agricultural lands that are vital to the future of the industry here in Hawai`i."

Parker Ranch has petitioned the Hawai`i Land Use Commission to designate 84 square miles (56,772 acres) as important agricultural lands.

It was just announced that Monsanto Company has donated $500,000 to the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), at the University of Hawaii at Manoa to establish the Monsanto Research Fellows Fund to assist graduate students studying  plant science and protection.

Can Hawai`i become agriculturally self-sufficient? Should Hawai`i focus on expanding agricultural opportunities? Should we develop plantations, large ranches, gentleman estates, or home, community and school gardens? What does agricultural self-sufficiency mean?

In my blog "The State of Agriculture in Hawai`i" (September 8, 2010), a responding comment by Ned noted that  the ag "industry" itself is fractured. Terms like "agriculture," "farming," and  "food production" are not synonymous. Hawai`i agriculture is  becoming less and less focused on production of food, at least for domestic consumption.  The growth of agricultural industries like seed corn and, ultimately, biofuel feedstock producers will continue to exert  pressure on food producers, perhaps to the point that, with the exception of a few Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) producers and some niche farmers there will be little food production by the state agricultural  sector."

How much land is needed for agriculture? Should we count the acres we need only for local food production, or for foods like coffee which we export, for flowers we display within the State, for flowers and leis we export, or for the acres we need for forestry, grasslands, and perhaps biofuels?

Should we urbanize Ho`opili before or after figuring out how much land is needed for agriculture?

Many people equate agricultural self-sufficiency with food self-sufficiency. In 2009 half of the value of Hawai`i's agricultural production was derived from just three products: genetically engineered seed crops for export, flowers/nursery products and sugarcane. The next three products in dollar value were aquaculture, coffee and macadamia nuts. Obviously our major dollar value products are not the same as what we need to eat or would like to eat to keep us healthy.

The issue is more than what is grown, it is also how it is grown.

Not all farming is equal as pointed out by Chad Adams, Bio-Logical Capital Vice President for Sustainable Development, who spoke at the World Congress on Zero Emissions, sponsored by Enterprise Honolulu (September 13-17, 2010)

"Take a modern industrial rice production systems and measure it head to head against [] southeastern Asian traditional cultural system for producing rice. Who makes more rice? I guarantee you it’s the industrial system."

"In the past century, 1/3 of all soil on the planet has gone from the land into the oceans, [] nearly half of the soil that's on the planet right now, 46.4%, is a massive decline in productivity because of being on this liquid NPK [Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium]. [] The industrial  system is giving [] an unhealthy crop, that's polluting the land, eroding the soil, using  tremendous amounts of energy, with none of those other benefits."

The traditional system supports the ecosystem, "the ducks, and their eggs, and the talapia, and the bok choy, and the arugula, and the nutrient rich water that is being used in the next system."

Hawai`i’s agricultural production has shifted considerably in the past half century. At the start of WW2, Hawai`i planted 350 square miles of sugar, 130 square miles of pineapple, and 20 square miles for all other crops combined.

Thomas Kemper (Islands in Transition: The Past, Present, & Future of Hawaii's Economy, 1992) noted that  "In 1941 one out of every three persons in Hawaii was on the payroll of a sugar or pineapple company, and many in the rest of the civilian work force owed their jobs directly or indirectly to purchases of goods and services by the sugar and pineapple plantation companies or their employees. ... Only the expansion of the military in the last half of the 1930s kept the whole economy from being almost entirely based on sugar and pineapple."  Furthermore "by 1940, per capita income in Hawaii approximated that of the mainland United States, by far the world's wealthiest country ... This extraordinary rise in income and the productivity that generated it was almost entirely the work of the sugar and pineapple plantations."

Half a century later the agricultural labor sector is less than 2% of the state labor force. Most non-agricultural interests do not understand the needs of the farming community.

What needs to be produced locally if we are to become food self-sufficient?

In 2003 the Average American ate about a ton of food a year or 5.5 pounds of food and liquids per day. The average diet in Hawaii of course is different but not easily locatable and probably varies considerably by ethnicity and region.

The average American ate 594 pounds of dairy, 418 pounds of vegetables, 275 pounds of fruit, 242 pounds of meat, eggs, and nuts, 194 pounds of grain, 142 pounds of sugar and sweeteners and 86 pounds of fats and oils per year.

Every fruit and vegetable known to man can be grown somewhere in Hawai`i. In the past we grew most if not all varieties of fruits and vegetables. In Honolulu we have a street name “Vineyard” that went to a vineyard. Today local production accounts for only about 40% of the fruits and vegetables that we eat.

The islands were totally self-sufficient in milk in 1980 but 30 years later we meet less than 20% of our needs through local production. Local egg production has dropped by more than 50% during the same time period. In the mid 1980s  Hawai`i shifted  its agricultural practice from maintaining cattle throughout their life within Hawai`i, to birthing cattle and then exporting them to be fatten on the mainland. In the early 1990s large food chains began importing protein products in refrigerated containers from the mainland.

Coffee is grown throughout the world, in over 100 countries. U.S. production is less than 0.1% of world production. The large mainland coffee interests have managed to maintain calling coffee “Kona” even if it consists of 10% Kona coffee and 90% trash coffee from elsewhere.

A few years ago Hawaii had about 700 macadamia farms and 8 macadamia processing plants employ 4,000 workers.

Hundreds if not thousands of fish ponds (loko i‘a) were built all along the coastline of all the islands. They were often located  next to the estuaries. Some of them were neatly a square mile in size. Today the oceans are being unsustainably overfished.

Hawaii Aquaculture Production in 2006 consisted of 200,000 pounds of shellfish and 400,000 pounds of finfish. Hawai`i is expanding on-shore aquaculture and submerged-ocean-based industrial scale fish farm plantations where the waste byproducts and emissions are difficult to monitor or even to  determine.

Grain plays a key role in all diets around the world.

There are 8 major grains grown world-wide: two mainly grown for people (wheat, rice) and six mainly grown for animal feed (maize, barley, oats rye, sorghum and millet). Historically the English language defined the term ''corn'' to mean the dominant grain grown within a region, thus in Scotland it referred to oats, in England to wheat and in the U.S. to maize. The English imposition of the Corn Laws on the American colonies was a law regulating wheat.

Maize is the number one crop grown in the U.S., accounting for a third of total grain production, hence we called maize corn. Hawai`i grew at one time or another most if not all of the various types of grain. Today our main grain production is limited to maize for genetic engineered seed production and sorghum-sudan grass hybrids.

Rice cultivation began in Hawai`i during the Civil War (1861-65) prompted by interruption of rice production in the Southern U.S.  By the early years of the twentieth century rice had attained the number two status of all Hawaii crops in both quantity and value behind King Sugar.  At the height of rice production, Hawaii was the third leading rice producer in the United States, behind Louisiana and South Carolina. Rice competed for the same land as taro, and was grown in Hanalei, Moiliili, Waikiki and other wetlands.  The influx of Japanese immigrants helped to accelerated Hawaii's decline in rice production. The Japanese preferred the short grain variety which was grown in California to the long grain variety that the Hawaii Chinese grew and ate in Hawai`i.

Rice requires much more water to produce than other grains. In many countries where rice is the main cereal crop, rice cultivation is responsible for most of the methane emissions.

How much land is needed for agriculture? The question forces us to ask, for what type of agriculture?  To grow food for local consumption or to promote and develop agricultural exports such as coffee. How much land is needed for forestry, pastures for domestic farm animals, and biofuel crops.

The problem has always been that agricultural land is not worth much. Residential and commercial acreage sells for more. The highest prices are paid for resort zoned lands. Therefore many land owners seek to convert land away from agriculture. Federal farm subsidies often go to the large agricultural interests with political clout.

From Hawai`i Kai, to Ho`opili, agricultural lands are being converted to houses. On Lana`i and Moloka`i large tracts of agricultural lands and open space are being proposed for industrial wind farms. Farms are primarily used for for the production of non-people-food products. At what point do we decide to value farm land for food production?

Upcoming Hawai`i agricultural conferences:

September  29 - October 1, 2011 Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, Waikiki, Hawaii

October 19-20, 2011 Hawai`i Farm Bureau Federation (HFBF) Annual Meeting, Hilo Hawaiian Hotel

January 8-11 , 2012 American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Annual Meeting, Hawaii Convention Center

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