Why Local Food? Part 1: Overview of Food in Hawaii

It seems fitting to kick off a blog about local food in Hawaii with a conversation about why local food is important.  So here it is: my take on what local food means to Hawaii, coming to you in four parts.  Part 1 is giving a general overview of food production in Hawaii.  Parts 2, 3 and 4 will be about the impact of food on our environment, economy and community.  Tell me what you think.

Reasons that May Explain Why Food is So Expensive

Hawaii is home to about 1,288,198 residents, 70% of whom live in urban areas.  We are also isolated from the continental US by about 2,500 miles and import between 85-90% of our food.  The reason for this heavy dependency on imported food is likely Hawaii’s small market and limited land, water and labor resource base, all of which makes it generally cheaper to import food than it is to produce food locally.  High food production costs can also be attributed to the high cost of inputs (like fertilizers and pesticides) and a lack of distribution infrastructure.  But most importantly, the core reason why local food continues to be more expensive than imported food may be that consumers either do not know or do not value the environmental, economic and social benefits of consuming local products.  Additionally, federal subsidy for commodity crops, most of which are grown on the mainland, contributes to the low prices of imported goods (HDOA 2008; Leung & Loke 2008; Page et al. 2007).

With 85-90% of our food coming from out of the state, Hawaii’s food supply is vulnerable to events that may disrupt supply shipments, like dock strikes, natural disasters and price fluctuations.  And we do not have much in terms of emergency food supplies — rumor is that we have something like three or four days worth of food in reserve.

Trends in Farmland & Production

Hawaii experienced a 38% increase in the number of farms between 2002 and 2007, while the percent of land in farming decreased by 14%.  A large majority (93.8%) of farms in Hawai‘i are less than 100 acres, while only 1.6% of farms are over 1,000 acres.  Less than 22% of farms are selling more than $50,000, meaning most farmers in Hawaii are not likely to be making a living wage from agricultural activity (USDA-ERS 2010).

Historically, Hawaii has produced three categories of agricultural crops: traditional plantation crops, commodities for local consumption and niche export crops.  When sugar and pineapple plantations declined between the 1970s and 1990s, agricultural producers began to concentrate on developing diversified crops.  And now as of 2006, Hawaii’s top five agricultural crops, together totaling over 75% of the value of agricultural sales in the state, are flowers and nursery products (22.1%), seed crops (21.4%); vegetables and melons (16%); macadamia nuts (8.5%); and coffee (8.1%).  The remainder of our locally produced goods include cattle (5.8%); fruits, except pineapple (5.7%); aquaculture (4.7%); milk (3.2%); eggs (1.8%); and hogs (0.9%) (USDA-NASS 2007).

Essentially, Hawaii is an exporter of specialty crops, mainly macadamia nuts and coffee, and our farmers are putting out much more crop products than livestock (USDA-ERS 2010).
What Does “Diversified Agriculture” Mean in Hawaii?

Much of Hawaii’s farmland currently in production is devoted to diversified agriculture.  In practice, diversified agriculture in Hawaii has come to mean niche markets–products that are merchandised as exclusive to Hawaii through a place-based branding strategy.  The long-term strategy to brand specific foods, like pineapple and macadamia nut, to a Hawaiian vacation experience has created the opportunity for farmers to think creatively about their crops and marketing strategies.  As a result of this new type of market, the number of individual farms has increased tremendously since 1990.  But at the same time, Hawaii has fallen away from producing commodities for local consumption, as was done historically, in favor of these more lucrative agricultural products.  As a result, Hawaii currently imports over 90% of its beef, 65% of fresh fruit, 70% of its dairy and nearly 70% of its fresh vegetables (DBEDT 2008; Suryanata 2000; Office of the Governor 2008). 

The story of pineapple and macadamia nut in Hawaii demonstrates the frailty of a food industry that depends so strongly on a few niche products.  Decades of marketing efforts made both products iconic to Hawaii and Hawaii benefited tremendously, as plantations provided employment, housing and infrastructure.  But in the end, Hawaii’s market share declined as the production of macadamia nuts and pineapple expanded worldwide over the last 50 years.  Today’s consumers are opting for a cheaper version of the original iconic products.  Conversely, the local food movement–which encourages local residents to consume local produce–retreats from the tourist-version of Hawaii in order to favor Hawaii’s natural environment and social relationships (Suryanata 2000).

Any conversation about increasing local food production should mention the environmental, economic and social impacts of food production, distribution and consumption.  Environmental impacts include chemical pollution, soil erosion, soil quality, biodiversity and waste (green, animal and consumer waste).  Economic impacts include employment, economic diversity and land use.  Social impacts include the preservation of unique native Hawaiian and local Hawaii food and food traditions, nutrition and hunger.  So of course, that what we’ll be talking about in future posts.