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September 18, 2016

Hawaii’s food insecurity: Ulupono Initiative calls food production challenging but achievable

Categories: Food | Featured

Published on September 18, 2016 in Honolulu Star Advertiser 

Gov. David Ige’s stated goal to double Hawaii’s local food production by 2030 is a key commitment toward tackling an issue that has been growing in importance for decades — our state’s increasing reliance on imports. Policymakers and consumers are critical to create a more favorable environment for farmers to produce food and reduce prices.

Importing 90 percent of our food may not seem bad when barges are coming weekly, but our state’s isolation in a time of crisis means we’re mere days away from being unable to feed our population. Doubling local food production is essential for Hawaii’s food security, but infrastructure issues and increased demand for land and water make it challenging.

Local food is fresher and higher quality, which may warrant paying more, especially if it supports local farms. That premium price essentially serves as an insurance policy for our food supply.

Consumers must buy local in order for leaders and farmers to make necessary investments to increase and optimize production.

However, tension exists between development and agriculture. We must find a balance between the needs of housing and feeding our residents. Agricultural, residential, tourism and commercial areas must coexist. Conversion of agricultural lands to other purposes is creating neighbors with opposing interests. Imposing development buffer zones will severely hinder food production to support our growing population of residents and visitors. This issue is occurring statewide with all types of agriculture.

In addition, plantation- era agricultural infrastructure needs repair and upgrades, including soil quality. More than a century of mono-crop production on Hawaii’s most fertile land has stripped the nutrients from the topsoil.

A focus on high-volume regenerative agriculture is needed to restore the natural ability of the soil to produce healthy crops.

Hawaii Dairy Farms, our proposed dairy on Kauai, is an example of regenerative agriculture that will use grass as a natural filter to capture and recycle nutrients from the cows’ manure to grow the grass as feed and improve soil quality. Over time, this process will restore soil carbon and increase the biodiversity that ensures a healthy environment. It also lowers the costs of production by decreasing the need for imported commercial feed and fertilizers.

While cows eating grass may seem like a no-brainer, a rotational grazing system is relatively new to Hawaii. The environmental and economic benefits of cows primarily eating grass are many for both beef and dairy production.

Addressing infrastructure needs such as water, feed and land are important, but nothing can be achieved without manpower. The average age of a Hawaii farmer is 60 years old. We must get people interested in farming and provide training to help them succeed, which is precisely why we have invested in GoFarm Hawaii, a University of Hawaii farmer-training program.

Ultimately, financially sustainable operations are essential to put people to work, continue producing food and contribute to Hawaii’s economy. This requires financing to scale up operations and realize efficiencies that make local food more competitive with imports.

Ulupono Initiative has invested more than $60 million in the past seven years to help for-profit and non-profit organizations working to create a more sustainable Hawaii.

Many challenges hinder the goal of doubling Hawaii’s local food production in the next four or more years, but none are greater than moving our collective thinking from individual to greater good.

All of us — policymakers and consumers — must be open to new ways of doing things. If we as a community are dedicated to increasing local food production, we need to identify models that are best for the long term and support those who are striving to make Hawaii more self-sufficient and food secure.