THE BLOG
09/10/2013 06:43 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013

Moving Past Plantations towards Sustainable Local Farms

Peacefully isolated 2,350 miles from the busy streets of San Francisco and resting on the edge of the Intertropic Convergance Zone, the Big Island of Hawai'i's location and breathtaking topography foster the perfect conditions to facilitate high agricultural yields and daily rainbows. According to Margaret Hopkins from the Department of Research and Development for the county of Hawaii, "The presence of 11 of the world's 12 micro-climates on the Big Island provides a great opportunity to make our island the center of 'customized' farming technology development in the world." From the black, yellow, and green sand beaches sea to the scarred summit of Mauna Kea (13,796), also known as Pu'u Wekiu, the diversity of climate zones on the Big Island accommodates the possibility of growing nearly every plant species that exists on Earth.

Historically, between the years 500 and 700 C.E., Polynesians from the islands of Marques brought various plant species to Hawai'i with outrigger canoes. Their selection of plants included 'Ape, 'Awa, 'Awapuhi Kuahiwi (shampoo ginger), Hau Ipu, Kalo (taro), Kamani, Ki, Ko (sugar cane), Kou, Kukui, Mai'a (banana), Niu (coconut), Noni, 'Ohe (bamboo), 'ohi'a 'Ai (mountain apple), 'Olena (turmeric), Olana, Pia, Uala (sweet potato), Uhi (yam), 'Ulu and Wauke. Centuries later, an economic expansion created by the California gold rush in 1849 led to an agricultural boom in Hawai'i when off-island investors introduced crops such as Irish potatoes, onions, oranges, coffee, rice, Macadamia nut, solo papaya, and sugar cane.

In a short period of time, large-scale production of commercial crops displaced traditional crop production, but by 1907, rice production peaked at approximately 42 million pounds per annum, whereas sugarcane peaked around 1933 with 254,563 acres under production. In the last century, large-scale agricultural production in Hawai'i has significantly diminished as rice, sugarcane, and pineapple production moved off-island because of rising labor and land costs. As a result, the Big Island of Hawai'i currently imports 85% of its food and its residents spend 22% of their income on imported food. In 2008, the local market share of production for food staples such as meat, eggs, and milk was only 11%. Similarly, locally grown vegetables constituted only 36% of the market share. Compounding the problem, the intensive use of toxic chemical pesticides and fossil fuel fertilizers by large-scale industrial farms for decades has degraded the most fertile areas of Hawai'i.

To boot, mega-corporations like Monsanto have been using the Aina (land) of Hawai'i as a laboratory for developing chemical products for agriculture and for testing genetically modified organisms (GMO). Although Monsanto claims that the implementation of GMO technology will increase food production, the untold Monsanto truth has more dubious connotations. GM crops require intensive use of water, synthetic fertilizers, and toxic pesticides that degrade the quality of arable land and water systems. In response to the potential impacts of GMO experiments, thousands of concerned residents and visitors have protested against Monsanto operations on every island, which has prompted political decision-makers to consider legislation that would ban or limit GMO experiments in Hawai'i.

In an effort to curtail industrial agriculture and promote a local food system, the Hawai'i Department of Agriculture in 2013 allocated $100,000 in funding for an array of projects in the coming year to promote locally produced foods. Other key proactive initiatives being considered that would advance local small-scale farming include goals to:

1. Strengthen the implementation of the "Right to Farm" act to preserve the availability of agricultural land for future generations.

2. Protect the identified prime ag lands by disallowing rezoning of these lands.

3. Institute a "blue-ribbon" panel to find ways to rationalize the current agricultural land tax subsidy so that it encourages local small-scale agricultural production.

4. Encourage the State Department of Agriculture to offer full services on this island; e.g., inspections in Kona and Hilo for pests, etc.

5. Encourage legislation that will require locally grown products to be served in school cafeterias.

6. Encourage legislation that will provide tax credits to eating establishments that serve locally grown products.

7. Ban GMO experiments to protect traditional crops, reduce environmental impacts, and preserve Hawaiian culture.

Hopefully, Hawai'i will continue to lead the world towards a sustainable future by advocating the production of locally grown food. Personally, I feel a "warm glow" every time I buy fresh, delicious, and healthy food from local farmers for I know I am supporting my community and protecting the Aina.