Papayas instead of Pop-Tarts: The case for Maui-grown food
Prior to European contact, the Hawaiian Islands produced enough food to feed a million people with no external inputs. According to University of California, Berkeley researcher Natalie Kurashima, Native Hawaiians did it by farming just six percent of the land using traditional techniques. Kurashima does not advocate a wholesale return to indigenous farming practices, but she does emphasize the true potential for increasing Hawaii’s food security through self-reliance.
Nearly 85 percent of Maui County’s food comes from overseas. This makes us especially vulnerable to disasters that disrupt ground transport and shipping systems. This is why the Maui Emergency Management Agency recommends households maintain supplies of enough food and water for at least 14 days. FEMA advises just three days of supplies for Mainland households. Our isolation in the middle of the Pacific means we can’t rely on other states to come to our aid immediately.
Hawaii uses a “hub and spoke” system in which all supplies come into the port of Honolulu to be transported to the Neighbor Islands. This system is susceptible to sudden disruption should disaster strike. During this post-pandemic period, global supply chain problems, international conflicts and disruptive climate change are daily reminders of our risky dependence on other places for our calories.
America’s long-distance, large-scale food transportation systems consume huge quantities of fossil fuels, adding to greenhouse gas emissions that stoke climate change. It’s estimated that most meals in the USA travel about 1,500 miles from farm to family kitchen. Since the landmass closest to Hawaii is roughly 2,400 miles away, our food miles (distance between where food is grown and where it is eaten) are much, much higher. That strawberry Pop-Tart you ate for breakfast traveled here from Cleveland, Ohio more than 4,500 miles away.
In November 2020, Maui County voters agreed to establish a Department of Agriculture. I was initially opposed to the idea, anticipating yet another regulatory department redundant with the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture. However, in 2021 I formed a volunteer agriculture working group comprised of farmers and ranchers to give recommendations and guidance for the new department. I was thrilled about their mission to support the development of a regional agricultural system that is in balance with environmental and community needs. We can all get behind such a mission.
Funding for our new Department of Agriculture will begin on July 1, just three days before American Independence Day. I am optimistic this department will help Maui County achieve a new kind of independence through reducing our over-reliance on imported food by growing more locally.
In March 2020, when the pandemic came to Hawaii, one of the first things I did was to contact our local farmers. When tourism abruptly stopped, so did their sales to the hospitality industry. To prevent them from having to plow their fields under, I quickly committed $30,000 per week to buy locally grown foods for distribution throughout the county. Farmers and ranchers made our food distribution program a huge success and local families enjoyed healthy, fresh foods during some anxious times.
With climate change intensifying drought conditions, I want to acknowledge our farmers for more efficient water use. Mahi Pono, Hawaii Taro Farm, Kumu Farms and other established farmers are using modern technology to improve their irrigation systems to greatly reduce water usage. They also retain soil moisture and decrease the need for chemical herbicides by installing weed mats around their crops. In the future, Maui County’s planned Central Maui Wastewater Reclamation Plant that will make millions of gallons of treated R-1 water available to irrigate farmlands, to conserve even more fresh water.
The personal benefits of eating locally grown food include fresher, better tasting produce; more culturally relevant foods; and providing income for local farmers and ranchers — some of our hardest-working small business owners. Environmental benefits include shortening the distribution chain, minimal packaging and much less waste. It’s good for the people and the planet.
Next month, our new Department of Agriculture will usher in a new era in Maui County’s history of feeding its people. Please join us by becoming a “locavore.”
* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column alternates with “Council’s 3 Minutes” every other weekend.