Why Local Food? Part 2: Environmental Impact of Food in Hawaii

Part 2 of this series, “Why Local Food?”, is focusing on the environmental impacts of expanding the local food industry in Hawaii.  After researching and writing this section, the slightly negative tone was a little surprising to me — I thought that the evidence supporting the positive environmental impacts of local food production would be more substantial.  I found instead that expanding a local food industry means inviting the potential for environmental damage if production practices are not sensitive to the environment in and surrounding agricultural fields.  Plus the argument about reducing greehouse gas emissions by merely purchasing local food is not complete — rather, we need to consider the types of food we are purchasing because most of the emissions from food are actually the result of production practices, rather than distribution practices.

Anyway, here’s my take on the potential environmental impacts of expanding local food production in Hawaii.  This is a long one, but there are a lot of impacts to consider.  Tell me what you think.

Environmental Impacts of Food in Hawai‘i

Changes to agricultural production and food distribution infrastructure in Hawaii would magnify both the positive and negative environmental impacts of the current food sector.  And although directly working on the land can encourage stewardship, merely increasing the production and consumption of local products without considering wider environmental impacts may invite the potential for ecosystem degradation.

Chemical Inputs, Erosion, Soil Quality & Biodiversity

Since most places in Hawaii are populated, it may be fair to assume that land on which agricultural production is profitable is either already in production or has been cultivated in the past.  Therefore, it is unlikely that expanding local agricultural production would encroach on pristine ecosystems or marginal land (HDOA 2008).  However, all types of agricultural production have the potential to cause erosion and impact soil quality.

Conventional plant crop production practices utilize fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to maximize productivity; however, these have the potential to modify surrounding ecosystems and affect human health.  In fact, most of the potential impacts of plant crop production mainly stem from chemical inputs—leaching into groundwater; volatilization, leading to the acidification of the soil and precipitation; and runoff into surface and groundwater sources.  Contamination of surrounding ecosystems from erosion or chemical pollution puts native flora and fauna habitat at risk in Hawai‘i the same as it does in any other region (APA 2007).  Of course, the negative impacts of crop inputs and erosion can be mitigated through proper conservation practices on farm fields (e.g. cover crops, soil tillage practices, or alternative pest management practices like crop rotation).  These types of practices could be further implemented by providing proper technical assistance and incentivized through grant programs — all of which requires substantial government and private-sector investment (Adiku et al. 2008; Alavi et al. 2007; Campbell 2004; Miranowski 2005).

 And as Hawaii expands local diversified agricultural production, the industry should also consider the environmental impact of aquaculture and livestock operations.  Aquaculture is taking hold in Hawaii; and while aquaculture has the potential to increase food security as a locally produced protein source, farming fish can introduce several environmental hazards, namely: biological pollution, organic pollution/eutrophication, chemical pollution and habitat modification (Goldburg et al. 2001; US Ocean Commission 2003).

While Hawaii has experienced a decline in livestock production1, many of Hawai‘i’s cattle ranchers work as cow-calf operations, since shipping calves to the US mainland for grain finishing is the preferred option for many ranchers because it is more profitable, as finishing animals requires additional input (e.g. feed and land) (Cox & Bredhoff 2003).  However, finishing cattle locally could impose environmental impacts that may be worthy of consideration.

  1. Finishing cattle locally also puts the operation at risk to natural disasters, like drought, as the industry would be more dependent on water (Cox & Bredhoff 2003).
  2. Further, Hawaii does not produce feed grains and the transportation cost are a significant factor in the cost and environmental impact of livestock production in Hawai‘i (Cox & Bredhoff 2003).

Local livestock production is further complicated as Hawai‘i has only three processing facilities statewide.  Hamakua Slaughterhouse in Hawai‘i Island is operated by Hawaii Beef Producers LLC and processes over 1.2 million pounds of beef annually.  Kalaeloa Slaughterhouse on Oahu is operated by the Hawaii Livestock Cooperative and processes cattle, hogs and goats, and Molokai Slaughterhouse Facility provides general livestock slaughtering services (HDOA 2010).

Water Allocation

Demand for water in Hawaii has increased in recent years, likely due to population growth, expansion of visitor industry, and a general increase in demand for water in urban and industrial sectors (Gopalakrishnan, Levy & Li 2005).  Access to water is a driver for both debelpment and agricultural production, so expanding local agricultural production is likely to increase demand for water, competing with both current human activity and natural ecosystems.  This is because utilizing irrigation infrastructure diverts water from natural streams, impacting instream flow and stream ecosystems, and diverting water upstream impacts downstream uses can make for contentious situations (DLNR-CWRM 2007).

Water allocation in Hawaii has been particularly contentious as sugar plantations closed statewide from the 1970s through the 1990s.  And although the state put into place an Agriculture Water Use & Development Plan (AWUDP) to protect the water infrastructure inherited from sugar and pineapple plantations, many of Hawaii’s farming communities struggle with water disputes.  Hawaii also established the State Water Code as an integrated administrative mechanism for the planning and management of Hawaii’s ground and surface water resources.  And because many areas in Hawaii experience regular bouts of water scarcity, one of the main goals of the State Water Code is to encourage conservation by allowing the transfer of resources from low to higher value uses.  The actual implementation of the water code is not as flexible, however, as permits can only be transferred if the place, quantity and purpose of the water use remains unchanged.  With this in mind, permit holders will unlikely transfer or modify permits unless forced, like in the case of Waiahole on Oahu (Just & Netanyahu 1998).  Expanding local food production into a level that reduces the price of local goods and can make a serious impact on the quantity of local produce most people eat may require that policies preserve water resources for food production and consider it an important water use.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In Hawaii, preferred foods are grown thousands of miles away and available in every season.  We consume well over 51,000 barrels of oil every year, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions of nearly 27,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (DBEDT 2008; Tantlinger 2007).  There is no data for the GHG emissions associated with food in Hawaii.

Despite evidence suggesting that local food production may not result in a significant reduction in GHG emissions associated with transportation (we’ll talk about this in a later post), communities tend to be better able to control the environmental impacts of local food production.  When food is produced out of sight, the environmental impacts are out of mind.  In addition to more control in the near term, Hawaii could capture future opportunities to “green” the local food system if transportation depended more on trucks and cars, than on air or ship freight, since ground transportation vehicles can be more easily converted into utilize electricity or alternative fuel (Weber & Matthews 2008).

1Between July 2007 and July 2009, statewide cattle sales fell 10%, egg production fell 15% and hog sales dropped 24%.  With the closure of Pacific Dairy, Oahu’s last dairy, milk production fell 48%.  The broiler chicken portion of the livestock sector has been closed since 2004 (Hao 2009).