Feeding Hawaii: Aloha State Transitions to Small Scale, Sustainable Agriculture

Hawaii field

Hawaii fieldNot everyone in Hawaii wants GMOs. In fact, countless citizens have gone against big biotech and GMOs at large, despite biotech groups bringing their muscle to the islands to try to bully them into growing poison-food. There are farmers making a better way, and they are doing it sustainably and organically.

Take Chris Kobayashi and her husband, Dimi Rivera as an example. Since 1997, they’ve been growing Japanese cucumbers without GMO seed, and without pesticides and herbicides. The couple lives on a farm in Hanalei Bay on Kauai’s North Shore. Even though the vegetable is tough to grow, requiring them to cover each vegetable with a plastic bag to keep the pests away (Hawaiian veggies and fruits are prone to fruit fly infestations), they’ve been able to sell them for $1 each at local markets because they are so good.

“You know, because they are crispy, crunchy, and yummy and you can eat the skin and everything.” They offered samples, and people really responded to their organic farming methods. People got hooked,, then they started to ask if the couple grew kale.

Kobayashi says, “I was like, ‘Kale? What is that?’ So that’s how we started growing other kinds of veggies. It was just all an organic thing that happened. None of this was planned.” Today they run a 10-acre farm called Waioli, named after the stream which runs beside their property. They also supply the public with organic taro, used to make the popular Hawaiian staple, poi, but also fruits and vegetables for farmer’s markets sales. Their family seems to be returning to generation-old agricultural practices.

They are also a member of Hawai’i SEED, a coalition of grassroots citizen groups and food activists that is working to promote ecological food and farming in Hawaii.

Earth Island Journal (EIJ) met with them and several other small scale farmers when they were covering grassroots movements against GMOs in the islands. EIJ was trying to uncover viable alternatives to Big Ag and their chemical-based GMO farming practices. It turns out there are quite a few, and they are enjoying a resurgence.

This bodes well for an island chain that currently imports more than 90 percent of its food. Unfortunately, research and development related to non-commercial GMO farming systems receives minimal funding. In the U.S., it receives less than two percent of public agricultural research funding. Hawaii University’s Albie Miles argues that this neglect has led to a “knowledge gap” that makes it easy for Big Ag companies to cite a “yield gap” between agroecologial and industrial food production.

Kobayashi says, “Over here we have year-round warm weather, we have land, we have water… We just need more farms that produce food. . . It will be a lot of hard work, but it can be done… I can see a vibrant economy take shape.”

The following is taken from PRWatch.org.

kauau taro farm
Photo by Ian Umeda.

It was the responsibility of the community living with the ahupua’a to manage the land and water resources in a balanced way. The community’s kahuna, or priests, helped oversee this by imposing taboos on things like fishing certain species during specific seasons, or gathering certain plants at the wrong time. Food, goods, and services were distributed within an ahupua’a via a system of sharing and mutual cooperation. This kind of resource management helped develop a strong sense of community and interdependence between the people and the natural environment. When Captain James Cook, the first European explorer to land in Hawai’i, sailed into Kaua’i in 1778, the islands were supporting a population of about 300,000.

(Estimates vary from less than 300,000 to more than 700,000. The current population of Hawai’i is 1.39 million.)
There are few ahupua’a left intact in Hawai’i today (Kobayashi’s farm is part of a fractured one), and none of them can support an entire community as in pre-industrial days. But some interesting efforts to restore versions of this ancient land-use system are being undertaken by organizations like the Waipa Foundation and the Limahuli Garden and Preserve, which lies just a little further north of Kobayashi’s farm on Kaua’i’s North Shore.

Hawai’i’s grassroots movement against the biotech farms and industrial agriculture finds much strength in this ancient agrarian history.

While it’s unlikely that the islands can completely revert back to the ahupua’a system, it does offer a model of self-sufficiency that can be emulated, says environmental lawyer and author Claire Hope Cummings. “Most of the country has this mix of the means needed for local food and fuel production, and a choice of models,” Cummings writes in her book Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds. “But very few places have the needed leadership and proven ways to go about creating our ideal of diverse and locally controlled economies.” Hawai’i, she says, is one of them.

Like Cummings, many farming experts and food activists say Hawai’i has to look beyond its colonial history to find the way forward to a food-secure state. The kind of agricultural model they are looking back to, and would like to see take root in Hawai’i, is gaining increasing international support.

A large body of scientific research – including studies by nonpartisan organizations such as the National Academies of Sciences, the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development, and the lesser-known, but hugely important, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) – indicates that the best way to ensure food production as the world’s population grows (and its climate changes) is by transitioning from the industrial, monocrop model to smaller, biologically diversified, agroecological systems that have proven to be better at addressing the challenges of food sovereignty, preserving biodiversity, and reducing poverty.

In fact, such food systems are already feeding most of the world. According to a 2012 report by the Canadian research and advocacy organization, ETC Group, at least 70 percent of the food the world consumes every year is grown by small-scale rural and urban farmers, while industrial farming, which gets most of the attention, land, and R&D dollars, actually produces only about 30 percent of the world’s food. “Our 70 percent estimate is inadvertently corroborated by the fertilizer industry who worry that somewhere between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of the world’s food is grown without their synthetic chemicals,” notes Pat Mooney, the group’s co-founder and executive director.

“The estimated 10 to 15 percent yield gap has to be understood in the context of historic underfunding of crop development using organic and agroecological farming methods,” he says. “Even with a small investment into these alternative methods, we’d be able to close the yield gap.” Miles believes that if the U.S. Department of Agriculture shifted its focus toward research and education in agroecology and biologically diversified farming systems, the potential to address global resource challenges would be enormous.

The state of Hawai’i came pretty close to making that shift on its own just two decades ago. When the plantation economy crashed in the nineties, the state agriculture department considered replacing the plantations with a more community-friendly model that included small farms growing diverse crops.

Photo by Ian Umeda

“Back then the University of Hawai’i’s agricultural extension agents would come by and say that we were going into diversified ag and truck farming and that they were going to provide us with the training and support to make that transition. But that never happened,” says Walter Ritte, a veteran Hawaiian political and environmental activist based in Molakai. Instead, the governor at the time, Ben Cayetano, began courting the biotech seed industry. “All of a sudden the best lands were being given to these big chemical companies and we were back to industrial ag again,” Ritte says.
Most of these companies produce commodity crops, mainly genetically engineered seeds, which get shipped to the U.S. mainland and overseas, leaving the islands heavily dependent on food imports.

“Everyone realizes that Hawai’i is in an incredibly risky situation in terms of food security,” Miles says, referring to reports that show that in case of a disruption in shipping the state’s inventory of fresh produce would feed Hawaiians for no more than 10 days. But, he says, there’s clearly a way out of this precarious position that could also create jobs and sustain the local economy. A recent Hawai’i State University study estimates that replacing just 10 percent of imported food with locally grown food would create about 2,300 jobs (about the same number that the seed industry provides) and keep $313 million circulating within Hawai’i’s economy. Miles says the state government needs to make “some serious choices” about its agriculture sector and needs to start removing the “structural obstacles” in the way of small, diversified farms.

The obstacles aren’t small, either. For starters, there’s the problem of providing potential smallholders access to land. Much of the state’s 280,000 acres of arable agricultural land belongs to big trusts set up by erstwhile plantation barons and Hawaiian royal families who prefer the security of leasing out or selling large parcels rather than divvying their land up in five to 10 acre (or smaller) sections. They can’t really be blamed for that either, given the massive property tax burden that they have to bear. (Kobayashi says a possible solution could be giving landowners some kind of tax incentive for taking a chance on new farmers.)

Then there’s the issue of finding enough people willing to take up farming in the first place – a core problem facing the agricultural sector worldwide. Scott Enright, the chair of the Hawai’i Board of Agriculture, told me there simply weren’t enough people in Hawai’i who were interested in taking up farming, or who had the basic knowhow in the first place. “But that said, we are looking to open up land in Kehaka [in Kaua’i] for agriculturalists. We’ll see who steps forward,” he says.

Farming advocates counter that the onus is on the state to invest time and money in teaching Hawaiians how to farm. “When the plantations closed, about 200 farmers were given two acres of land [each] to cultivate, but they weren’t given full support. We didn’t show them how to farm. So after a few years they gave up,” says Hector Valenzuela, a crop scientist at Hawai’i University. “Even at the [state-run] university, we diverted our attention to GMOs. Crop scientists shut themselves up in labs when they should have been in the fields, showing farmers how to grow food,” he says. “The hardest thing to do is to convince somebody to start farming, so when one decides to do so we have to help them succeed.”

Back at Waiole Farm, Kobayashi says that it is pretty clear Hawai’i needs to start the transition with some rulemaking. “I don’t know how to put it all together, but that’s what we want to work on… It’s quite a big complex issue, but we’ve just got to start chipping away.”