(Photo: Daisuki Kishi/Getty Images)

Food Independence Could Be a Matter of Survival for the U.S.’ Most Isolated State

Hawaii imports 90 percent of what it eats at great environmental cost. Now ag activists seek to make ‘grown here, not flown here’ a reality.
Jun 29, 2015· 11 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

HONOLULU—When my Airbus touched down at Honolulu International Airport, I was one of 30,843 people to arrive in Hawaii on a June day. As a crush of tourists mobbed rental car counters and taxi stands, massive container ships steamed into the Port of Honolulu just across the harbor, carrying some of the 6 million pounds of food shipped to Hawaii every day to feed the state’s 1.4 million residents and 8 million annual visitors. On nearby runways, cargo planes landed packed with fresh fruit and other perishable items that wouldn’t survive the 2,500-mile ocean voyage. The world’s most isolated chain of islands, Hawaii imports nearly 90 percent of its food at a cost of more than $3 billion a year.

There’s a high environmental price to be paid for relying on a 747 or 40,000-ton ship as your food truck. The largest cargo vessels can emit as much pollution as 50 million cars in a year, according to a 2009 study, and shipping accounts for about 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Just consider the carbon footprint of putting a Hawaiian steak on local plates: Tens of thousands of calves are raised on the Big Island of Hawaii every year and then loaded on barges to the mainland. There they’re fattened, slaughtered, shrink-wrapped, and shipped back across the Pacific to the islands. Meanwhile, pests and parasites that hitch a ride on this nonstop caravan of cargo ships are decimating Hawaiian wildlife, forests, and farm fields at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

But if the status quo is bad, what happens if the ships stop coming could be far worse.

“I think there’s a sense here in Hawaii that if we have a hurricane or a tsunami, how long could we last with our food supply?” said Jenai Wall, chief executive of Foodland, Hawaii’s largest supermarket chain, which relies on imports for about 80 percent of its sales. She paused. “Not very long.”

Probably less than a week, actually.

“If something catastrophic happened on the mainland, we’d have about three days of food in the stores,” said Una Greenaway, a farmer on the Big Island. “We’re very, very food insecure here, but we don’t have to be.”

Greenaway, who grows coffee, cacao, apples, bananas, and pineapples on a five-acre farm, is part of a burgeoning local food movement in Hawaii that’s attempting to reverse decades of deepening dependence on imports. In recent years, there’s been a flowering of farms, farmers markets, and eat-local campaigns across the islands. Not all that different, in other words, from what’s going on in the crunchier parts of the mainland. But this is no foodie fad. It’s state policy. As globalization and climate change upend worldwide food production, Hawaii is moving to foster homegrown agriculture in a way that could be a model for others. One key: kicking the state’s severe addiction to another carbon-intensive import—oil.

The Sustainable Past

The first food imported to Hawaii arrived in the canoes of ancient Polynesians, who began to colonize the uninhabited islands between 500 and 700 C.E. Onboard were the starchy staple taro, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, coconuts, breadfruit, bananas, pigs, and chickens. Those crops and others became the staples that, by the time of European contact in 1778, supported a population historians estimate was between 150,000 and 1 million. Without access to draft animals, wheels, or metal tools, the ancient Hawaiians developed the ahupua’a, a sophisticated and sustainable agricultural system that ran from the ocean to upland valleys. The Hawaiians harvested the bounty of the sea and grew taro and other crops on irrigated inland fields. The ahupua’a produced enough food to leave even commoners the leisure time to surf.

Diseases introduced by Europeans decimated the native Hawaiians, and by the mid-19th century the ahupua’a had been supplanted by vast American-owned sugarcane and pineapple plantations and cattle ranches, a trend accelerated by the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and annexation of the islands in the 1890s. By 1936, only 37 percent of Hawaii’s food supply was locally grown, according to University of Hawaii researchers.

Food imports soared in the ’60s when the advent of jet travel triggered a tourism boom that would become the mainstay of the Hawaiian economy. Between 1960 and 2005, Hawaii lost half its farmland as Big Ag began to abandon sugarcane and pineapple plantations, unable to compete against growers elsewhere. “Although the decline in farm acreage to present has not yet reached the ‘critical point’ where Hawaii’s food security would be threatened, the trend is a warning sign for Hawaii’s future food security,” said a 2007 report issued by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

By 2010, Hawaii was producing only 30.1 percent of the fresh vegetables, 38.1 percent of the fresh fruits, and 9.3 percent of the protein consumed on the islands, according to a 2013 study by University of Hawaii researchers PingSun Leung and Matthew Loke. Local dairies supplied all of Hawaii’s milk in the early 1980s; by 2010, most were out of business after a federal court ordered the state to allow imports. Today, 86 percent of milk on store shelves comes from the mainland. Seafood has sustained Hawaiians for millennia, and people here consume nearly twice as much fish per capita as those on the mainland. Yet, Hawaii flies in about half of its seafood, mainly from overseas.

Even taro is imported.

A staple food of the ancient Hawaiians, the starchy tuber played a central role in their creation myths and spirituality. “The latest data we have for taro is that we’re consuming 332,000 pounds of fresh taro a year but are only producing 100,000 pounds, so we import the rest,” said Leung.

Hanalei Valley taro field, Kauai. (Photo: Getty Images)

Powered by Water

So why doesn’t Hawaii grow more of its own food? For one thing, huge swaths of agricultural land remain locked up in now-defunct plantations or are controlled by companies that grow genetically engineered seeds, one of the state’s largest exports—the pineapple of the 21st century. What farmland is available comes with hard-to-get and high-priced leases. Farmworkers are also difficult to find and command higher wages than on the mainland, according to Leung, who studies the economics of Hawaiian agriculture and food imports. And just about everything else used in farming—energy, fertilizer—costs more here and must be imported. Globalization and free trade agreements, meanwhile, have made some imported food cheaper than homegrown, even if it does have to be shipped across the world.

You can see those challenges—and the future of local agriculture—on the Big Island of Hawaii, the cradle of ancient Hawaiian civilization. The ahupua’a fed Hawaiians for more than a thousand years, but sugarcane’s reign lasted fewer than 150. The last of the single-crop plantations that dominated this island for much of the 19th and 20th centuries shut down in 1994.

A cornucopia of crops has blossomed on the Big Island since the collapse of big sugar. As I drove through a vast former plantation north of Hilo, the main town on the wet east side of the island, I passed fields planted with cucumbers, bell peppers, taro, and other fruits and vegetables. Off a one-lane road is Hamakua Springs Country Farms, where Richard Ha and three generations of his family grow bananas on 600 acres carved from the plantation. When oil prices skyrocketed in the summer of 2008 before the global financial crash, Ha said he realized it would be impossible to foster sustainable agriculture without sustainable energy.

Hawaii burns imported oil to generate 70 percent of its electricity, which is not only a dirty way to produce power but also makes the state—and farmers—extremely vulnerable to wild swings in energy costs. “Electricity prices were scary,” said Ha, dressed in shorts and a rumpled polo as we stood in the open-air packinghouse at Hamakua where workers clean and package bananas. “Fertilizer prices went up, and my workers were asking to borrow money for gas so they could get to work. Anything we can do to lower our cost by moving away from oil is going to start to give us more of an advantage in agriculture.”

I think there’s a sense here in Hawaii that if we have a hurricane or a tsunami, how long could we last with our food supply? Not very long.

Jenai Wall, chief executive of Foodland supermarkets

He gestured across the floor toward a forklift and a pile of pallets. “Even moving a pallet around the farm is based on diesel.”

These days, though, the power lies in Ha’s hands. From his iPhone he controls a small hydroelectric power plant that he installed on the farm last year. We climbed into Ha’s pickup and drove up a red dirt road that winds up the windward slopes of Mauna Kea. Past fallow fields at the top of the farm lies a tributary of a river that flows down the volcano. Back in plantation days, a flume carried harvested sugarcane down the mountain to a mill. The flume is still here but now channels water to an underground pipe that flows into a small building where the constant stream powers a turbine that generates 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

That’s enough energy to run the entire farm, including power-hogging refrigerated storage rooms, with 60 kilowatt-hours left over. “Our electricity bill used to be $12,000 a month,” Ha said. “The payment on the hydro is only $6,000.”

With all that extra carbon-free electricity on tap, Ha said he’s considering how to expand his farm, perhaps to raise tilapia, mushrooms, and more. He argues that if the Big Island made more use of its geothermal resources—the world’s largest active volcano, Mauna Loa, sits to the southwest—that would result in lower agricultural costs and encourage more people to farm.

“Things are changing,” Ha said. “We were at an Italian restaurant yesterday, and it was all sourced locally. It makes you so happy to see that.”

Indeed, before meeting Ha, I stopped for a late lunch at the Sweet Cane Café in Hilo, where the ingredients come straight from the owners’ organic farm. There was a line out the door as surfers, soldiers, and security guards queued up for taro burgers and blueberry-coconut-sugarcane smoothies.

Harvested bananas at Hamakua Springs Country Farms.
(Photo: Todd Woody)

At the Hamakua packinghouse, bunches of newly picked bananas hung from a conveyor built from parts salvaged from a slaughterhouse that shut down as ranchers began to ship their calves to the mainland for processing. “It sounds unreasonable, but it’s more profitable from the ranchers’ point of view,” Leung said of the long trip “local” beef has to make.

That’s because Hawaii’s climate is not hospitable to growing hay and corn for cattle, and importing cow chow is actually more expensive then exporting cows. But the Big Island’s pasture does grow year-round, and one of the state’s biggest ranches has launched a joint venture to raise grass-fed cattle, no barge required.

The growing taste for homegrown food could help alleviate environmental disasters spawned by Hawaii’s dependency on imports. As we drove across the upper reaches of the farm, Ha pointed out stands of dead Ohia trees. The native trees, which shelter birds and other wildlife and are a keystone of the Hawaiian ecosystem, have been dying in droves from what scientists have identified as a fungal disease. “Although we can’t be 100 percent certain that the strain is nonnative, all evidence currently suggests that it must be a nonnative introduction to Hawaii,” Flint Hughes, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Hilo, said in an email. Reducing food imports could lower the risk of such epidemics, he continued, though he noted that pests could also arrive on the island in a shipment of nonfood plants and soil.

A Silicon Valley for Ag

The day before I arrived in Hawaii, Gov. David Ige signed legislation committing the state, which pays the nation’s highest electricity rates, to obtain 100 percent of its energy from solar, wind, and other renewable sources by 2045. That target dovetails with another state policy to promote independence by expanding and diversifying local agriculture and reducing the islands’ reliance on imported food.

Some 20 miles north of Honolulu, the government is attempting to create a Silicon Valley of agriculture by buying up abandoned pineapple plantations and transforming the former company town of Wahiawa into an ag-tech hub for central Oahu.

Bullit Hatcheries on Oahu. (Photo: Todd Woody)

“When I was a kid, this place was bustling,” said state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, 41, as he piloted his gray Toyota pickup around the town of 18,000 where his grandfather worked as a truck driver for the Dole pineapple plantation after emigrating from the Philippines.

The agricultural estate began withering away decades ago, and the last big plantation shut down in the early 1990s. For the past several years, Dela Cruz has been the driving force behind what is called the Whitmore Project, named after a former plantation workers' camp on the outskirts of town. State and local agencies pitched in $25 million to buy 1,700 acres of former pineapple land bordering Wahiawa that will be subdivided and leased to Oahu farmers. The state also bought 24 acres in Whitmore Village, the former workers' camp, and a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Wahiawa that will be retrofitted for food packing and processing.

“The industry to revitalize the economy is ag,” said Dela Cruz, who wears shorts and a T-shirt and talks a mile a minute as we pull into Whitmore Village. “The idea here is to have this be a hub for all the packing and processing you need, as well as to be a retail hub. If you’re a farmer who leases the ag land we’re starting to buy, your operations would be here, and there would be no need to build new infrastructure.”

One of the first tenants at Whitmore Village is Bullit Hatcheries. On the day we visited, Austin Kanamu, son of owner Alex Kanamu, was tending large white tanks of tilapia. Other tanks were overflowing with hydroponically grown watercress and strawberries. Blueberries grow elsewhere on the property. A warehouse next to the tilapia farm is set to become a processing plant, which would allow Bullit to sell packaged fish to supermarkets and government agencies. “One reason we came here is that right now there’s no place that has processing for fish,” said Austin.

Dela Cruz’s vision is to create more earning potential for Hawaiian agriculture by encouraging farmers to produce value-added products, such as the juices, jams, and syrups that are now almost entirely imported. Dole, for instance, grows 40 acres of cacao nearby but ships the beans to the mainland to be processed into chocolate.

“It’s all about the margin,” he said as we stopped by an area coffee grower’s retail outlet that sits surrounded by vacant farmland. The place was packed with tourists sipping Hawaiian-grown and -roasted coffee while shopping for souvenirs. “When you do this, you help to start to help other industries,” Dela Cruz said as he picked up a small blue-glazed coffee mug handmade by a local artisan. “It’s $25! Oh my god.” He spied a jar of jam. “Look at that—fifteen bucks,” he said. “A police officer in Whitmore Village makes this in his spare time. They can’t keep it in stock. You can’t get that kind of margin at a farmers market.”

Grown Here, Not Flown Here

One thing Hawaiian farmers don’t have to worry about is demand for local food. “We try to source everything we can local, and if we can’t find it here, then we bring it in from the mainland,” Wall, Foodland’s chief executive, said at the supermarket chain’s Honolulu headquarters. “Our produce team has worked with a lot of local farmers, even asking them to grow things for us that we have historically had to buy from mainland sources.”

More than 20 percent of the items on Foodland store shelves are locally grown or made. At the company’s Aina Haina store in Honolulu, a banner that reads “Locally Grown in Hawaii” flies over a produce section featuring taro, cassava, peppers, okra, turnip, string beans, red cabbage, and asparagus. An orange tag tells shoppers that the luau leaves, for instance, came from Twin Bridge Farms on Oahu, while the long beans were grown on the North Shore at Ho Farms, which plans to start farming at Whitmore. Throughout the store, orange tags identify every Hawaiian product, from soy sauce and bread to chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. More than 200,000 people have pledged to eat homegrown food one day a week as part of Foodland’s “Eat Local Tuesday” campaign.

Locally grown produce displayed in a grocery store.
(Photo: Willy Blackmore)

“It’s good for the economy,” said Wall, “and we also feel that Hawaii depends so much on food from elsewhere that the more we can get here, the more sustainable we’ll help our community to be.”

How self-sufficient can Hawaii become? The University of Hawaii’s Leung said the state now produces about 80 percent of its tomatoes and all of its watercress, and other homegrown vegetables are cost-competitive with mainland varieties.

“I think we’re doing quite well, because there’s a lot of momentum and people are aware of local food and are willing to support that,” he said. “But when people talk about being 100 percent food self-sufficient, that’s pie in the sky. There has to be a balance in reality. Hawaii is part of a country, and we don’t set import rules.”

“Some food we’re never going to grow, like wheat and rice,” he added.

Who needs wheat and rice, asks Greenaway, who has been farming on the Big Island for nearly 40 years. (Disclosure: Greenaway’s daughter is a contributor to TakePart.) Taro and breadfruit, which sustained the ancient Hawaiians, can serve as locally grown substitutes, she argued.

“We can grow all our food here, but we need to teach people how to grow food for themselves and also how to eat it,” she said.