Economist questions Ige’s goal of doubling state’s food production

Brewbaker’s farm futures

Economist Paul Brewbaker speaks about the viability of Hawaii agriculture Thursday during a Grassroot Institute of Hawaii presentation at the Maui Country Club in Spreckelsville. He told the group that he doesn’t see the point of Gov. David Ige’s initiative to double the state food production by 2030. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

SPRECKELSVILLE — Saying that the likelihood of Hawaii losing its outside food sources was low, economist Paul Brewbaker said Thursday that he didn’t see the point in Gov. David Ige’s initiative to double the state’s food production by 2030.

Brewbaker said he had nothing against people growing more food, but he took issue with tax dollars going toward high-risk agricultural ventures.

“Here’s the dilemma for me: Why is feeding ourselves — who cares?” Brewbaker asked during a talk at the Maui Country Club. “When did the food not come to Hawaii? . . . All we do is sit back and take money from the tourists as they drive down to Wailea. . . . I’m not sure what event we’re supposed to ensure against when we’re talking about food security.”

Speaking on economics and sustainability, Brewbaker pointed out that the state Department of Agriculture itself has very little data on food production, due to cuts in data-related staff positions that are just now being restored.

“How do you double food production? Two times I don’t know is I don’t know,” said Brewbaker, former chief economist for Bank of Hawaii and now head of consulting firm TZ Economics.

Grassroot Institute of Hawaii President and CEO Kelii Akina discussed property owners’ rights Thursday at the Maui Country Club. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Kelii Akina, president and chief executive officer of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, the independent think tank that organized the event, said that the government has laid out the goals without giving itself the tools to do so.

“There seems to be a disconnect in our state,” Akina said. “Our government is trying to do things to promote agriculture. . . . Many of us are aware that there are things the state could do to increase agricultural output by stop doing certain things.”

Some laws, while well-meaning, end up interfering with and restricting farmers on their own land, Akina said.

In 2014, agriculture made up 0.6 percent of Hawaii’s estimated value-added gross domestic product, far behind tourism at 16.9 percent, according to data from several federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Department of Commerce and the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.

But food production, Brewbaker said, is not the problem. Hawaii has a steady supply of food on hand and is exporting products like seed corn across the globe.

Paul Brewbaker questioned the purpose of Gov. David Ige’s initiative to double the state’s food production by 2030. He has no problem with people growing more food, but argued against using tax dollars for high-risk agricultural ventures. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Across the state in 2010, seed crops made up the largest sector of agriculture at 35.8 percent, followed by flowers and foliage at 11 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Much of what Hawaii produces goes beyond food, and one nonfood product, bioenergy, could play a big role in the future, Brewbaker said.

Listeners, however, wondered why the state shouldn’t try “creating some level of self-sufficiency.” One resident wondered if there were opportunities for farmers to establish a local dairy industry to produce high-quality products. He said Mainland milk is cheaper, but that he preferred to buy higher-quality, more expensive milk from local sources.

Brewbaker didn’t oppose more farming opportunities. He said there is plenty of agricultural land with proper irrigation and he encouraged all kinds of operations, “organic, conventional, big farm, small farm.” However, he added that because some industries haven’t taken flight in Hawaii, that “suggests it’s a commercial challenge to do it.”

Overall, new agricultural ventures are risky, Brewbaker said, and he was hesitant about subsidizing it.

“Why would we allow a legislator to take our taxes and give it to some guy to gamble on a crop for which there are a zillion insects and bacteria and viruses waiting to eat it before we do?” he said following his talk. “Investment involves taking on risk. And that’s why private investment earns the rewards that it does.  . . .  It’s a much tougher case to make for social, collective risk-sharing.”

Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, said that he likes the governor’s proposal because it “sets a goal for the state.” However, he said, people have to be realistic along the way.

“Commercial farming is a business. You need to generate profit,” he explained. “People think you can just drop seed in the ground and make money.”

He added that there’s a misconception that, in Hawaii, “you can grow anything.” But Hawaii relies on the Mainland for many crops that can be grown in better conditions and at cheaper rates than in the islands, he said.

“One thing about the American food system is that it’s reliable and relatively cheap,” he said.

Watanabe doesn’t see a dependence on imports as a bad thing — he said it simply needs to balanced with local farms of different sizes using a variety of methods. Biotechnology also needs to play a part to help crops stay resistant to disease and drought, he added.

“Agriculture needs to be allowed to progress with the times, with scientific discoveries,” Watanabe said. “You can’t be held back.”

Ige was out of the country and could not be reached for comment Thursday.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at