maui vista

We Need A Better Vision For Food Sustainability – Honolulu Civil Beat

A recent piece I wrote about food and agricultural development in Hawaii, originally published in Honolulu Civil Beat.

In the 2020 State of the State address Gov. David Ige reminded us that change doesn’t happen overnight, and of the importance of vision to see things not as they are, but as they could be.

One such vision has been to transform “agriculture in Hawaii from large plantations … to smaller, more diversified farms that grow food for local consumption.” Now more than ever, we’re told, “local farmers have it within their grasp to make a difference in our drive toward self-sufficiency.”

I’m not so sure.

The two projects highlighted in the address are Mahi Pono on Maui and Sensei Farms on Lanai. Mahi Pono’s 41,000-acre diversified farming enterprise is a joint venture between Pomona Farming LLC, a California-based global investment and food branding company, and the Public Sector Pension Investment Board, one of Canada’s largest pension investment managers. Sensei Farms’ hydroponic greenhouses, like Lanai, is owned by Larry Ellison, Earth’s fifth richest human.

Not exactly what comes to mind when you think “local farmer,” right?

Mao farms seedlings sprout in Waianae.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat. Ma’o Farms seedlings sprout in Waianae. In spite of the governor’s push for the state to look self-sustaining when it comes to agriculture, efforts have not been transformative.

Maui and Lanai aren’t the only islands undergoing such “transformation.” On Oahu, Costco is considering growing their own greens in greenhouses. Meanwhile, California’s Hidden Villa Ranch and Indiana’s Rose Acre Farms have partnered to produce up to 1 million eggs a day. To round out the plate, Hawaii Meats LLC, owned by Idaho billionaire Frank Vandersloot, now controls Oahu’s only slaughterhouse and a Kauai cattle herd.

After years of “Buy Local, It Matters,” we must now start to ask to whom it matters and why.

Ownership, Scale, Operations

Local food purchasing has various motivations from health to sustainability, and freshness to economic development. Support for local food has become shorthand for support for land preservation, rural farms and communities, environmental protection, and even the desire to wean ourselves off of imported goods.

Reliance upon imported fruit and vegetables, however, goes back well over a century. Over this period the desire to increase local self-sufficiency has motivated government action from land reform to market development.

In our era, the clearest local food goals, like Gov. Ige’s Sustainable Hawaii Initiative and Hawaii Green Growth’s Aloha+ Challenge, have emphasized doubling production. A tight focus on increasing productivity on tighter political timelines (2020 and 2030, respectively) paired with limited resources and direction given to the Department of Agriculture has left little option other than to coddle and laud investors wanting a taste of our taste for local fare.

The ownership, scale, and operations of these firms are not inherently problematic, and can even have some benefits to the state of our plate. What is important to consider is who benefits, and who is at risk, as these companies position themselves in our “drive toward self-sufficiency.”

Though we might have more food of geographically local origin, the surplus value from the sale of that food accrues not to our rural farms and communities but instead to distant shareholders and executives. In short, efforts to reduce imports and increase self-sufficiency have the potential to export profits and jeopardize existing farmers.

Increased state investment and support of the over 7,000 existing farms would provide a more durable diversification of Hawaii’s agrofood system. Supporting the thousands of farms at the margin of the marketplace to participate in our pushes for productivity ensures that the money spent by the state, and at the grocery store, will strengthen Hawaii’s economy.

Additionally, this will facilitate the diversification of the local food market instead of consolidation by a few big firms.

Expanding from a narrow focus on increasing production to emphasizing farm viability is not a silver bullet though. The localness or smallness of a farm does not ensure that it is just or sustainable. However, with nearly 90% of farms in the state less than 50 acres, small is what we’ve got.

If the state wants to address the needs of the majority of its farmers, it needs to understand and address the viability of smallholders. A 2018 survey of farmer needs in Hawaii found labor, land, and capital to be the primary barriers to increased productivity.

Structural Barriers

These three structural barriers are intractable issues that can’t be remedied overnight.

Committing state resources to address structural barriers to increased productivity will ensure that local farmers do indeed “have it within their grasp to make a difference in our drive toward self-sufficiency.”

That drive should enhance the viability of our farmers and question the impacts of delivering Hawaii’s local food system further into the grasp of global capital.

Proclamations to increase productivity that count calories but not livelihoods won’t strengthen our food system. For food systems’ change to be transformative we need a better vision for the future of agriculture that focuses on supporting local farmers.