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September 09, 2016

Worthy food goal faces obstacles

Categories: Food

Published on September 9, 2016 in Honolulu Star Advertiser 

It doesn’t seem like such a lofty goal: Gov. David Ige has publicly announced aspirations to double the amount of food the state produces by 2030.

Despite the fact that this is only 14 years away, the proportion of homegrown food on Hawaii tables is low enough — an estimated 10 to 20 percent — that achieving twice as much should be within reach.

But when every factor that drives up the cost of food in the islands is considered — land, farming infrastructure and supplies, labor — the reality comes into clear focus. This really will be a heavy lift.

And increasing the food security of the state will be a campaign requiring that impact on consumers be considered, every step of the way.

Ige included the pledge in his address on the Sept. 1 opening day of the IUCN World Conservation Congress, which adjourns this weekend. It’s been an historic opportunity to showcase Hawaii’s vision of becoming more sustainable, environmentally as well as economically.

The call for boosting food production was part of Ige’s broader Sustainable Hawaii Initiative, which also addressed management of resources such as nearshore waters where reefs are threatened, as well as the state’s watershed; the state’s ongoing clean-energy goals; and the problem with invasive species.

The food-security vision is admirable, one that meshes with the hopes for a revitalized agricultural industry. The governor cited several proposals as being key to fulfilling that part of his sustainability goals. Here are a few of those:

>> Increase the Agricultural Loan Program portfolio by $5 million per year in the next biennium, funding a plan by the state Department of Agriculture to provide more start-up capital to new farmers.

>> Improve the coordination of policy decisions affecting agricultural water resources.

>> Buy about 800 acres of prime agricultural land, adding to previous acquisitions by the department and the state Agribusiness Development Corp., which plans to have 600-900 additional acres of the Galbraith lands in Central Oahu in cultivation in the next two years.

>> Begin an agricultural business incubator in Kekaha, Kauai, for about 5,000 acres of agricultural lands.

>> Advocate for a farm-to-school program for a second fiscal year, to increase the amount of locally grown food that state agencies purchase.

>> Revitalize livestock and dairy industries with new startups. Public-private partnerships would establish a large hen facility for egg production and would develop slaughterhouse infrastructure to expand the state’s grass-fed beef operations. Additionally, plans for local feed mills are in the works to increase local feed production.

That last point does take aim at one of the make-or-break issues for livestock operations here: the cost of feed.

Murray Clay is managing partner at Ulupono Initiative, a private investment fund that seeks to boost the capacity of priority Hawaii needs, including food security. He said the import of feed adds to the costs passed on to consumers; competitive pricing, of course, is key to success.

But there are other challenges, Clay said, not the least of which is workforce training and availability, and infrastructure investments. Profit margins are generally too slim for farmers, on their own, to afford much of that. Farmers also need to choose the crops and products more likely to compete well, price-wise, in the market.

Above all is the availability of good farmland for long-term leases, he said, as farmers will be unable to get adequate financing otherwise.

And that means the state’s important agricultural land regulations should be implemented aggressively, to ensure that land reserved for agriculture will remain so for the long term. Owners who believe they have a chance to develop their land and reap a higher profit from it, Clay said, are much less willing to give long-term surety to farmer lessees.

The move to make food production a priority would benefit Hawaii: It supports a supply of fresher, healthier produce and proteins for Hawaii’s population, and reinforces the local agricultural industry.

But state officials will face numerous decision points on that road, reckoning with budgetary and land-use realities along the way. Stating the goal is a starting point for decision makers, and now the obstacle course stretches out before them.