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Hawaiian Local isn’t Quite

December 13, 2011
by Glen Martin

Locovorism may be an international movement, but tradition and geography have transmuted it into a fierce and uncompromising passion in Hawaii. The 50th state, after all, has a true cuisine, one founded on unique foodstuffs and a venerable indigenous culture. Small wonder, then, that the local food movement has found the rich volcanic soil of the Islands such an agreeable growing medium.

It also helps that the environmental ethic in Hawaii runs deep; and eating local is about Eating Green. It somehow makes sense that local food imposes less stress on Hawaii’s beleaguered ecosystems than shuttling in megatons of grub via 747s from the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

But the benefit may be more apparent than real. True, the import of food to the Islands imposes a heavy carbon load on the planet. A large jetliner emits about 245 pounds of climate-warming carbon dioxide per air mile. So a cargo plane stuffed with T-bone steaks, rice, salad greens, and potato chips making the San Francisco to Honolulu run dumps almost 600,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep that jet grounded at SFO and let them eat poi and poke on Oahu?

Well, yes—and no. Yes in that local food production can mitigate the problem simply because less fuel is burned and less carbon is emitted. A 2008 white paper from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture on the state’s local food sector lists several additional benefits, including a lower risk of the importation of noxious invasive species, the preservation of “open working landscapes” (e.g., farmland), and improved nutrition for residents (fresher produce generally means more vitamins).

But agriculture is extremely disruptive to natural processes. That includes agriculture that yields exquisite organic vegetables, free-range pullets, and grass-fed beef. Hawaii has no truly indigenous crops—they’re all introduced, including taro and all the commonly consumed fruits. The impacts started as soon as the first canoe hit the beach and a pig jumped out, ran into the brush, and crapped out a guava seed.

“Slow food, locally grown food, organic agriculture—it all deserves support, but you have to remember that it all involves soil disruption,” said Josh Collins ’80, Ph.D. ’91, the lead scientist for the San Francisco Estuary Institute. “I’ve visited the Big Island, and I was pretty appalled at the riparian impacts I saw on some of the organic farming operations. Watershed degradation caused by agriculture—including organic agriculture—is a huge problem in Hawaii. You have lots of very steep watersheds, and zones with intense precipitation. When you disturb soil—as you have to do in any farming operation—you can end up with all kinds of erosion and water-quality problems.”

Collins notes it can be difficult for organic farmers to walk the walk as rigorously as they talk the talk. “I have a couple of organic growers in my own family, and I’ve had to take them to task when they wanted to expand their operations to some extremely sensitive areas,” he recalls. “They told me they had to plant more vegetables, and I said I understood that, but they couldn’t do it in a wetland.”

Ben Schmidt, the assistant field operations director for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Eastern Pacific Region, agrees that agricultural impacts are a major environmental problem in Hawaii—particularly for large-scale enterprises that leave soils vulnerable to erosion, such as seed corn and sugarcane operations.

“We also have some policies that seem pretty strange no matter how you look at them,” Schmidt observes. “For example, we raise a lot of cattle in Hawaii, particularly on the Big Island. But most of them are shipped live to the mainland, where they’re fattened up in feedlots. Then the finished beef is shipped back here. Moving cattle around like that doesn’t seem like the most cost effective and environmentally sound way of getting beef to Hawaiian markets.”

Despite farming’s environmental downsides, says Schmidt, Hawaii must maintain a robust agricultural sector. And he feels that organic farming—the handmaiden of locovorism—should be encouraged.

“We’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and we only have a three- to five-day supply of food at any given time,” he says. “One real disaster—like a tsunami on the level of the one that recently hit Japan—could put us in dire straits. And that said, organic is probably the best way to go. The operations tend to be smaller and less disruptive of the landscape [than traditional farms] and the operators are more environmentally aware. Finally, organic farmers dislike bare soil—they use a lot of mulch and cover crops, which reduce erosion.”

While its supporters champion locovorism as an implacable trend destined to redefine the zeitgeist, plenty of skeptics remain. It all comes down, they say, to scalability—relatively little acreage is cultivated per the industry’s rigorous standards. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s stats are explicit on this point. In 2007 (the last year for which complete figures are available), 1,121,329 acres were classified as farmland in Hawaii, or about 27 percent of the state’s total land area. Of that, only 10,830 acres were certified as organic.

Hawaii’s local food sector has grown significantly since 2007, but it’s still small potatoes, says Gordon Rausser, Berkeley’s Robert Gordon Sproul Distinguished Professor, the former dean of the College of Natural Resources, and erstwhile chairman of the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics.

“As a reliable means of feeding people, [locovorism] is de minimis, and it’s destined to stay that way,” Rausser says. Even in Hawaii, he adds. There are a lot of people on the islands—almost 1,400,000 permanent residents and about 7 million tourists annually. Naturally, they all want to eat often and well.

“Hawaii can’t feed itself even with standard high-yield agriculture, let alone organic agriculture,” Rausser says. “The production costs of local organic food are high, plots are small, and the products command expensive prices—far too expensive for average consumers to buy on a regular basis.” And, he adds, “The first hint of a recession and producers lose money—we saw that with organic milk producers in 2008, when many folded because they had to slash their prices close to those for regular milk.”

Rausser also thinks the environmental benefits of local food are exaggerated. “No doubt there is some benefit, but I’m by no means sure if it’s measurable to any real degree. That’s the problem—it’s never been quantified, not even in California, let alone Hawaii. I suspect much of it is happy talk.”

Some progressive groups also have begun questioning the heretofore unquestioned virtue of eating locally, including Oxfam International, a global coalition of social justice and anti-poverty groups. “We don’t want to be the skunk at the picnic, but we believe people need to think carefully about local foods,” says Gawain Kripke, the policy director for Oxfam. “The poorest people in poor countries are usually farmers, and an increasing number of them are dependent on international markets to sell their produce. If we cut them out of the markets, it isn’t just a financial inconvenience for them—it is a complete catastrophe. It can literally destroy them.”

And like Rausser, Kripke thinks local food’s environmental upside is insufficiently documented. “True, flying across the oceans produces a great deal of atmospheric carbon in proportion to the amount of food delivered,” he says. “But the maritime transport of food is really pretty sound, environmentally speaking. You can move massive amounts of product with relatively little fuel.”

Also, says Kripke, “not all local food is equal in terms of minimizing environmental impact. Say you’re in Boston in February and you can buy either a tomato grown in a field in Mexico or one grown in a hothouse in Quebec. Now, Quebec is a lot closer—it’s a much shorter drive to deliver that tomato. It’s more ‘local.’ But it takes a lot of gas and electricity to keep the greenhouse warm. The Quebec tomato probably ends up with a bigger carbon footprint than the one that grew in the sunshine in Mexico.”

Ultimately, Hawaii’s local food movement may have to become more truly and deeply local before it makes an impact beyond the Islands’ toniest restaurants. That means producing food on the micro scale, on land that has no value as wildlife habitat, watershed, or even commercial cropland—backyards.

“One thing that surprises me is how few people garden here,” says Schmidt. “They don’t even raise things that are ridiculously easy to grow, like breadfruit and papaya. You can feed yourself year-round from a backyard garden and a few fruit trees in Hawaii. You go out and pick a breadfruit and it’s a meal for your entire family—it doesn’t get any more local than that.”

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