Earth Foundation

Stewards of the Land, Sea and Native Cultures


Editorial by Dr. Andrew G. Hashimoto, Ph.D., dean and director of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at University of Hawaii at Manoa

Hawaii’s agriculture is ready to grow a revitalized economy

This editorial helps justify EF’s Hawaii & Maui Sustainability campaign.


The Maui News (December 12, 2001)

In the wake of Sept. 11 it is increasingly evident that we must revitalize and diversify the state’s economy while better protecting the state’s fragile ecosystem.

There is a myth that Hawaii’s agriculture is dying because of the decline of the sugar and pineapple plantations. The value of diversified agriculture, that is, crops other than sugar cane and pineapple, has more than doubled in the past 20 years. For several years during the economic downturn of the late 1990s, diversified agriculture was the only industry in Hawaii that was actually growing.

Hawaii is the only state in which the number of farms is increasing and the average age of farmers is decreasing. Agriculture and value-added products in Hawaii contribute $2.9 billion to the state’s economy each year and employ 42,000 people. On all of our islands, successful, hard-working entrepreneurs are innovating in marketing and development of crops ranging from ‘awa to rambutan and in animal production such as aquaculture.

They make an excellent nucleus for expanding agriculture in the state. In virtually all commentary on Hawaii’s economy since Sept. 11, there is widespread agreement that it must be diversified beyond its over-reliance on tourism. The time is ideal, therefore, for public and private interests to make a committed effort to build on and strengthen Hawaii’s agriculture industry. We have an unusual window of opportunity: The best agricultural land in Hawaii is now available because of the decline of plantation agriculture.

If all of the about 250,000 acres available were put to productive use, an additional $1.7 billion to $4.4 billion could be added to the state’s economy each year. We anticipate shipping costs to rise as increased inspection and other security measures are instituted. Knowing that our supply lines can be disrupted and that bioterrorism may be an increasing threat, we must act now to ensure that we have an adequate, dependable, safe food supply for all our citizens.

Besides potential threats to our food supplies, the long-term prognosis is that food demand and costs will increase as the world’s population increases by 50 percent in the next 50 years and the availability of arable agricultural land declines. The Big Island and Maui have been in the throes of a serious drought for years. All of the islands are beginning to see their water tables go down; our aquifers clearly must be “recharged.” In the days of sugar cultivation, they were recharged by the percolation of irrigation water. Now, however, without crops growing on our prime agricultural lands, much of our water is simply running out to sea.

Many of the elaborate irrigation systems built and maintained by sugar plantations have been allowed to fall into such disrepair that in some cases they are useless or, worse, are actually wasting precious water. Hawaii’s unique environment and natural beauty are two of its most precious assets. To protect these assets, we must insure that the wastes from all of our activities are managed in a sustainable manner.

We will not be allowed to continue to dispose of our wastes into our rivers and ocean. Agriculture can play an important role in helping treat our biological wastes, and even some hazardous wastes, through bioremediation processes. In 1978, the people of Hawaii articulated the need to preserve agricultural land and insure a reasonable level of food self-sufficiency.

The state constitution was revised to add Article XI, Section 3 which states: “The state shall conserve and protect agricultural lands, promote diversified agriculture, increase agricultural self-sufficiency and assure the availability of agriculturally suitable lands.” An expanded agricultural industry can be achieved by establishing a vision for agriculture and the means to attain the vision. The Hawaii Farm Bureau, with input from the Land Use Research Foundation (LURF), is working on a Strategic Plan for Hawaii’s agriculture. Hawaii’s agriculture must have the capacity to provide food for our residents and those who visit us, and must also be competitive in the global marketplace.

In order for us to be globally competitive, we must find niches in which our products are market leaders where quality, uniqueness and Hawaii’s brand identity are valued. We must accept the fact that competitors will eventually be able to produce the same product at a lower price, since our input costs – land, water, labor, transportation, etc. – are higher than our competitors’. An example is Hawaii’s floriculture industry, where we are market leaders in certain tropical flowers but must continually stay ahead of our competitors by developing new and improved varieties as they produce lower-priced versions of our products.

Further development of Hawaii’s agriculture industry will require effort and commitment by all of us. It will take time, ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit, public and private investment, visionary legislation, and the consistent will of Hawaii’s citizens. The payoff will be that we will create capital and jobs for our children, stabilize rural communities, assure our own food security, keep our islands attractive, and save our land and our water. Most important for Hawaii’s families, however, is that embracing agricultural expansion will help preserve our unique island lifestyle for the next generations.