Why Hawaii needs to rethink its efforts to increase local food production

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Doubling Food Production in Hawaii. Triple the percentage of locally grown food consumed in the state. Get government agencies to source at least half of their food locally.

Hawaii has very ambitious goals to revitalize the state’s languid agricultural sector – a desire that has only been heightened by fears of food shortages and supply chain disruptions that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic.

Achieving any of the state’s production targets would be a huge achievement. But there isn’t a complete plan for how the state will get there – nor even a clear idea of ​​what a goal like doubling food production will accomplish.

It’s a problem, state agricultural experts say.

“We have this kind of fixation or fetish around agriculture,” says Albie Miles, assistant professor of sustainable community food systems at the University of Hawaii West Oahu. “But we have to be intellectual about it.”

Wide view of Ahiki Acres owned by farmers Haley Miyaoka and Matthew McKinnon located in Waimanalo.
Hawaii’s agricultural experts are starting to ask, what are we trying to do? They say we need to rethink the definition of state food security to be more realistic. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2020

Part of our collective fixation on locally grown food comes from a desire to come back to the land and have a deeper connection to the food that nourishes us, Miles says. But while these desires are valid and important, they can often cloud what we think agriculture can accomplish.

“The governor says we are going to double local food production, but it was presented as ‘this is how we are going to strengthen food security in the state’ and it is like no. No, we are not, ”said Miles. Agriculture alone will not ensure food security. “Food security is an economic issue.

What are we trying to do? Do we want to produce more local foods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and climate change? To keep Hawaii dollars economical? Making fresh food more affordable for struggling families? To fight against obesity and public health problems? To make the state less dependent on imports?

The answers to these questions should guide our goals for agriculture in Hawaii.

There are a lot of different reasons people want to see agriculture preserved and developed in Hawaii. Some of them are the way of life and the landscape.

No one wants to see the entire urbanized Central Maui Valley, said Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, professor of indigenous cultures and cropping systems at the University of Hawaii Manoa. There is a cultural component, a climate resilience component, and an economic resilience component, Lincoln said. Hawaii has frequent discussions of these issues, but the conversation always seems to be focused on one issue at a time.

“We don’t have a plan that really considers all of these things, how they get there,” Lincoln said. “And how they can support each other. How several results could be obtained through the same action.

Creation of a state food charter

Over the past decade, stakeholders in a growing number of states have addressed some of these issues by developing a National Food System Plan, a document that sets out state goals and guides policy decisions.

There are currently 18 states with an active food system plan or charter, and many more are working to develop one, according to a University of Michigan survey.

A food system plan or charter defines a vision for food in the state. This means not only agriculture and food production, but also farmers’ markets, food supply, and programs like Da Bux that help low-income families access food. This vision can then help guide public policies and investments toward achieving specific goals, Miles said.

A growing number of states have developed a state food system plan, a document that sets out state goals and guides policy decisions.

What Hawaii has had in the past are farming plans that set food production apart from other parts of the food system.

“We could double food production, but that won’t solve these other aspects of the food system that we have to deal with simultaneously,” Miles said.

These more comprehensive plans are in line with a larger trend for leading universities and think tanks to approach issues in a multidisciplinary fashion, Lincoln said.

Food system plans or charters can be based on a government-commissioned survey of state needs, but they often start as a local effort that brings together a range of stakeholders to talk about the big challenges and goals in one. given area, said Lesli Hoey, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan.

One thing the charter process accomplished in Michigan was to really engage people, said Hoey, and generate support for people and groups with emerging ideas that may not have seen the light of day or would not have had a great impact.

This need for support is one of the reasons why it is essential to involve legislators and state agencies in the process.

Miles is helping lead a local effort in Hawaii to start the process of developing a participatory food system plan, through an initiative called Transforming Hawaii’s Food System Together. He also worked to gain support for the creation of a food system plan with state lawmakers and private groups.

Hawaii needs a comprehensive statewide food security plan that involves lawmakers as well as farmers and takes into account many economic, agricultural and social parameters. Anthony Quintano / Civil Beat / 2018

Other nonprofits and coalitions like The Ag Hui are also trying to bring people together for more coordinated conversations about the needs of the state, Lincoln said. But these efforts try to fill a void in the leadership of the state that shouldn’t be there.

“We don’t see the leadership of our leaders. And so others are stepping up, but they don’t have the keys to power to initiate these changes, ”said Lincoln.

Lack of coordination

Bringing stakeholders together to create a roadmap for Hawaii’s food system is just one way to address a serious lack of planning and coordination when it comes to the state’s struggling agriculture sector.

“What we should be doing is asking ourselves how well the state provides services to farmers? Says Sumner La Croix, economist at the University of Hawaii. “Why is it that farmers don’t make money in the state of Hawaii like most of them don’t? What can we do to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers to make food production here in the state less expensive? “

If the state had a better idea of ​​the food it wanted to see grown to meet sustainability or food security goals, it could also use that information to create incentives for certain types of crops.

No one can tell farmers what to grow, said Nicholas Comerford, dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii. They will cultivate what they know how to cultivate, what their parents grew and what they think they make money.

But Hawaii needs a different kind of farming, he said.

“He needs it because we’re so far apart, right?” Said Comerford. “We need a better perspective on what the state needs to grow. And we have to provide the farmer with (information about) where he can grow and the economics of his crop. “

The Department of Agriculture has a list of the most desirable and most nutritious crops in the state. UH has a detailed map of the crops that grow the best in the state. If this data could be combined with economic projections for the most profitable crops, then farmers could make more sophisticated decisions about what to plant.

If the state had a better idea of ​​the food it wanted to see grown to meet sustainability or food security goals, it could also use that information to create incentives for certain types of crops.

Another way to help would be to strengthen planning and coordination within the university system, said Bruce Mathews, dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management and professor of soil science at UH. Hilo.

The university system has lost funding for a number of positions because agriculture has not been a priority in the state for the past decades, Mathews said. This means there are a lot of missed opportunities just within the university, Mathews said.

One idea would be to have a vice president for agriculture in the UH system who could coordinate all the agricultural departments and programs in the system to meet the big challenges of the state.

Some of this work was previously done by the late Governor’s Agricultural Coordinating Committee. The committee, which was eliminated more than two decades ago, has been allocated a certain amount of state money each year to address priority issues, Mathews said. Then the committee would ask professors from across the UH system to meet with producers to identify challenges and submit proposals to resolve them.

“I mean, one way or another, you have to have all the Navy ships lined up to do what the Navy needs to do,” Mathews said. “And right now it’s just kind of free for everyone.”

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