Civil Beat Topics

Agriculture In Hawaii

In recent decades, Hawaii has started the difficult transition from a mono-crop culture that put heavy emphasis on exports like pineapple and sugarcane to diversified agriculture that encourages farmers to grow, among other things, fruits and vegetables for local consumption. Nearly 2 million acres of land in Hawaii, or half the state, are classified as agricultural. Those lands provide some of the open, rural spaces that give the islands their unique character.

Seed crops — primarily seed corn — have become Hawaii’s most valuable agricultural product in recent years, despite goals of food self-sufficiency and energy independence that require locally-grown plants.


Over millions of years, Hawaii was formed by lava flowing through a hole in the earth’s crust, creating hundreds of islands, 137 of which are named. The archipelago stretches some 1,500 miles toward Japan. Each island differs in age, and the soils have broken down and oxidized to varying degrees. Hawaii has 190 different soil series (PDF), and 10 of the 12 soil orders in the world.

In addition to its varieties of soil, Hawaii also has a warm climate that allows growth of some plants year-round; sunshine is abundant if not constant, and rainfall levels vary wildly depending on location. Some locales receive as little as 10 or 20 inches of rain per year. By comparison, Mount Waialeale in the center of Kauai, is among the wettest places on earth with average annual rainfall of more than 400 inches.

The soil and climate make Hawaii an ideal location to grow any number of crops. Early Polynesian settlers brought with them plants like sugarcane, taro, banana, bamboo, coconuts, mountain apples and breadfruit, just to name a few, and saw their agriculture thrive. Combining these fruits and vegetables with chicken, pigs and other animals, Native Hawaiians established a self-sufficient society for many centuries.

After Western contact in the late 18th Century, it was the ability to move vast amounts of water to formerly arid locations and the steady supply of cheap foreign labor from Asia that transformed the islands into a hospitable home for sugarcane and pineapple plantations. Sugar was first exported in the 1830s, and Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co., a division of Alexander and Baldwin, is the last remaining sugar plantation today.

During the nearly two centuries that sugar has proliferated here, it dominated the landscape, culture and economy of the islands. The “Big Five” of Castle & Cooke, C. Brewer and Co., Alexander and Baldwin, Theo Davies and Co. and American Factors (Amfac) scooped up parcels of land and gradually increased their power and influence.

In recent decades, Hawaii underwent a rapid transformation as many pineapple canneries and farms and sugar producers closed their doors or converted their operations. Today, Hawaii has turned to smaller and more exotic fruit and vegetable farming. In 2013, 7,000 farms were operating, up from only 3,700 in 1954. They produce more than 40 crops, up from 28 in 1954. Hawaii is still the only U.S. state that produces coffee, and is, after Australia, the second-largest producer of macadamia nuts in the world.

Chief among the so-called “diversified agriculture” ventures are a handful of seed crop companies. International organizations like Monsanto and Syngenta take advantage of Hawaii’s year-round growing conditions and three or four crop cycles to make up the difference in shipping and the high cost of leasing or owning land in Hawaii.

Seeds, the vast majority of which are corn seeds genetically modified to resist drought, salt water or pesticides, are sold to mainland farmers. The seed crop industry was valued at about $217 million in 2012-2013, down from $242 million in 2011-2012, which was a record high. Seed corn remains the state’s most valuable agricultural resource.

Some environmentalists oppose these genetically modified organisms because they say GMOs have not been heavily tested and thus their long-term health risks are largely unknown. The companies behind the GMOs have also been criticized for making it hard for small farmers to stay in business without their products.

But many of the world’s most respected scientific organizations and publications have concluded that genetically engineered foods are as safe to eat as other foods and that there is no credible evidence of harm to humans who consume them. In farming terms, they say that genetically engineered crops are often easier on the environment than traditional ones.

Beef production is another key component of agriculture in Hawaii. Paniolo — Hawaiian cowboys — have carved out a place in island lore. The Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation says that some 90 percent of the beef produced in the state comes from Hawaii Island, generating $26 million in annual revenue. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that there were nearly 200,000 cattle and calves in Hawaii as of January 2014.

In addition to an increased focus on food sustainability, farmers have stressed the need to transition to local sources of renewable energy that will provide long-term fixed prices, in contrast to the rising, and volatile price of oil which can have significant impacts on the cost of farm operations.

Civil Rights Complaint: Pesticides Are Harming Native Hawaiians PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Civil Rights Complaint: Pesticides Are Harming Native Hawaiians

Two local groups want the EPA to force state agriculture agencies to better regulate pesticide drift.
The Projector: Maui’s Final Year Of Cane Burning

The Projector: Maui’s Final Year Of Cane Burning

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company plans to shut down Hawaii's last sugar plantation by year's end, but the ritual continues for now.
Should Hawaii Lose Its Pesticide Enforcement Power? Zeynel Cebeci/Wikimedia Commons

Should Hawaii Lose Its Pesticide Enforcement Power?

UPDATED: Earthjustice claims the Department of Agriculture isn't doing enough to protect the public from misuse of pesticides.
What The Federal GMO Food Labeling Law Means For Hawaii Cory Lum/Civil Beat

What The Federal GMO Food Labeling Law Means For Hawaii

National requirements take effect effect in two years, but local GMO labeling advocates don't think they go far enough.
Hirono, Schatz Split GMO Votes Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hirono, Schatz Split GMO Votes

The U.S. Senate passed legislation to create federal labeling standards for genetically engineered foods.

To Hear The Founding Fathers Tell It, Hemp Can Make America Great Again Chad Blair/Civil Beat

To Hear The Founding Fathers Tell It, Hemp Can Make America Great Again

States like Hawaii are loosening restrictions on industrial hemp, but the real breakthrough could come at the federal level.
Watch Wednesday’s Federal GMO Hearings Live On Civil Beat Civil Beat

Watch Wednesday’s Federal GMO Hearings Live On Civil Beat

Visiting 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judges will hear oral arguments in three GMO-related lawsuits, as well as two other cases.
Hawaii On The Hill: Keeping The Islands On Washington DC’s Map Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii On The Hill: Keeping The Islands On Washington DC’s Map

The third annual event sponsored by Sen. Mazie Hirono and Chamber of Commerce Hawaii shows off island businesses in the nation's capital.
Environmental Report For Dairy Project Flickr: Steven Zolneczko

Environmental Report For Dairy Project

Hawaii Dairy Farms releases an Environmental Impact Statement dealing with a proposed 557-acre dairy farm on Kauai.
Pesticides In Hawaii: ‘There Is A Lot We Don’t Know’ PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Pesticides In Hawaii: ‘There Is A Lot We Don’t Know’

Gov. David Ige says he is open to a report's recommendations for stronger regulation and monitoring of chemicals sprayed by seed companies.
A&B’s Return Of East Maui Water: Generous Gesture Or Staged Event? Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A&B’s Return Of East Maui Water: Generous Gesture Or Staged Event?

UPDATED: Hawaii legislators praise the company for restoring several streams to help taro farmers, but critics contend it's still illegally diverting water.
Hawaii Senate Approves Water Rights Bill Over Loud Protests Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii Senate Approves Water Rights Bill Over Loud Protests

An amendment failed that would have ensured the measure wouldn't continue Alexander & Baldwin’s stream diversions in East Maui.

September 2016

Wednesday, September 14

Civil Rights Complaint: Pesticides Are Harming Native Hawaiians

August 2016

Friday, August 12

The Projector: Maui’s Final Year Of Cane Burning

Thursday, August 4

Should Hawaii Lose Its Pesticide Enforcement Power?

Tuesday, August 2

What The Federal GMO Food Labeling Law Means For Hawaii

July 2016

Friday, July 8

Hirono, Schatz Split GMO Votes

June 2016

Wednesday, June 22

To Hear The Founding Fathers Tell It, Hemp Can Make America Great Again

Tuesday, June 14

Watch Wednesday’s Federal GMO Hearings Live On Civil Beat

Thursday, June 9

Hawaii On The Hill: Keeping The Islands On Washington DC’s Map

Wednesday, June 8

Environmental Report For Dairy Project

May 2016

Thursday, May 26

Pesticides In Hawaii: ‘There Is A Lot We Don’t Know’

April 2016

Wednesday, April 20

A&B’s Return Of East Maui Water: Generous Gesture Or Staged Event?

Tuesday, April 12

Hawaii Senate Approves Water Rights Bill Over Loud Protests

Seed Industry Reps Quit Kauai Pesticide Fact-Finding Group

Wednesday, April 6

Supreme Court Affirms 3,500-Home Development On Farmland

Monday, April 4

Hawaii’s Trifecta of GMO Cases Will Be Heard By Appeals Court In June

March 2016

Wednesday, March 30

Richard Ha’s Farm Ends Operations

Monday, March 14

Workers Affected By HC&S Closure Qualify For Federal Relief

Coalition Protests Water-Rights Bill

Thursday, March 10

Hawaii Seed Industry Slams Pesticide Report’s ‘Unsubstantiated Fears’

February 2016

Saturday, February 6

Appeals Court To Hear Maui GMO Case

January 2016

Friday, January 22

Syngenta Workers Seek Medical Aid After Pesticide Use on Kauai

Tuesday, January 19

Living Hawaii: What Is Sapping The Energy Of Our Farmers?

October 2015

Friday, October 9

Hawaii to Expand Voluntary Pesticide Reporting by Big Ag Companies

September 2015

Tuesday, September 15

GMO Firms Are Major Sponsors of National Ag Meeting in Hawaii

Sunday, September 13

Hawaii AG Backs Vermont GMO Labeling Law

July 2015

Monday, July 6

Save the Dairy: We Need Producer Cooperatives

June 2015

Tuesday, June 30

Federal Judge Strikes Down Maui County’s GMO Moratorium

Wednesday, June 24

Hawaii Is Feeling the Seed Industry’s Downturn

Monday, June 15

Federal Judge Plans to Rule on Maui GMO Moratorium By End of June

March 2015

Tuesday, March 31

Managing Pesticide Drift: Farmers Get It

Monday, March 30

Fierce Opposition By Ag Industry Kills Pesticide Disclosure

Friday, March 20

Bill Encourages Students to Consider Careers in Farming

No Prison-for-Pineapples After Land Swap Bill Stalls in House

Thursday, March 19

Maui GMO Farming Moratorium Won’t Be Enforced Until At Least June

Tuesday, March 10

Voter-Approved Maui County GMO Moratorium May Be Further Delayed

Lawmakers Struggle to Boost Hawaii’s Food Production

Monday, March 9

Sugar Cane: Another Season of Smoke Looms Over Maui

Tuesday, March 3

Tokuda Shoots Down Pesticide Buffer Zones Bill Without a Hearing

As Hoopili Decision Looms, How Much Farmland Is Left?

February 2015

Thursday, February 19

House Panel Rejects Bill to Impose Buffer Zones for Pesticides

Disappearing Farmland: Hoopili Continues the Trend

Thursday, February 12

Hawaii Governor Supports Buffer Zones for Pesticide Spraying

Wednesday, February 4

Hawaii House Panel to Take Up Pesticide Buffer Zones

Tuesday, February 3

Kim Coco: Pesticides and Schools — Who Should State Protect?

January 2015

Friday, January 30

Maui County Isn’t Sticking Up For Its GMO Farming Moratorium

Tuesday, January 20

Will Hawaii Lawmakers Address Concerns About Pesticides?

December 2014

Tuesday, December 16

SHAKA Movement Seeks Dismissal of Suit Against Maui GMO Farming Ban

Monday, December 8

Historic $7M Spent by Group Against Maui GMO Farming Moratorium

Wednesday, December 3

State, Kauai County Plan $100K Study of Pesticide Use on GMO Crops

November 2014

Wednesday, November 26

Judge Invalidates Partial Ban on GMOs in Hawaii County

Honolulu Planning Commission to Consider Hoopili Development

Saturday, November 22

Two Groups Seek To Defend Maui County’s GMO Farming Ban

Monday, November 17

Maui County Agrees Not to Enforce GMO Moratorium Until March

Lack of Money Leads to Lax Oversight of Pesticide Use in Hawaii

Friday, November 14

Judge Puts Brakes on Maui GMO Law

Thursday, November 13

Monsanto, Agrigenetics Sue to Invalidate Maui County GMO Farming Ban

Wednesday, November 12

GMO Debate to Be Shaped by New Senate, House Ag Chairs

Monsanto, Maui County Sued Over GMO Farming Moratorium

Thursday, November 6

If All of Molokai Had Voted, the Maui County GMO Ban Could Have Failed

Majority of Voters on Molokai, Lanai Opposed Maui County GMO Ban

Wednesday, November 5

Monsanto and Dow to Challenge Maui County GMO Farming Ban

Tuesday, November 4

1,000 Votes: Maui GMO Farming Ban Squeaks By

October 2014

Thursday, October 30

Possible Vote Buying in Campaign for Maui GMO Initiative?

Wednesday, October 29

Governor Picks Former PLDC Director to Serve on Agribusiness Development Corporation

Tuesday, October 28

Nearly $8 Million Raised to Defeat Maui GMO Ballot Initiative

Tuesday, October 7

New Anti-GMO PAC Forms After Biotech Group Spends $820,000 on TV Ads

Friday, October 3

GMO? Pesticides? Labeling? Hawaii Gov Candidates Have This to Say

September 2014

Wednesday, September 17

Maui Judge Rejects Effort to Keep Anti-GMO Voter Initiative Off November Ballot

Wednesday, September 10

Lawsuit Seeks to Remove GMO Voter Initiative From Maui County Ballot

Monday, September 8

Report: GMO Labeling Opponents Triple Spending

Ad Watch: Pro-GMO Group Calls Maui County Measure a ‘Farming Ban’

Thursday, September 4

Hoopili Decisions Loom: ‘Prime Farmland’ May Give Way in West Oahu

Wednesday, September 3

Food Industry Leverages Hawaii Court Ruling in Vermont GMO Labeling Fight

August 2014

Friday, August 29

Maui Pro-GMO and Anti-GMO Groups Both Oppose Ballot Initiative Title

Pro-GMO Hawaii Farm Group Aims to Spend $400,000

Monday, August 25

Federal Judge Invalidates Kauai’s Anti-GMO Law

Thursday, August 21

Donations Pour in to Influence GMO Debate, But Are They Being Disclosed?

Tuesday, August 12

Is Kauai Pro-GMO? Primary Election Results Suggest So

Friday, August 1

Earthjustice, Center for Food Safety Seek to Defend Big Island GMO Ban

July 2014

Wednesday, July 23

In Hawaii, Who Has the Authority To Regulate GMOs and Pesticide Use?

Monday, July 21

Cost Rises for Kauai Lawsuit Defending Disclosure Law on GMOs, Pesticides

Sunday, July 20

The Projector: The Faces of Molokai’s GMO Economy — July 14-20

Monday, July 14

Molokai Has the Most to Lose, But Least Say in GMO Debate

June 2014

Thursday, June 26

A High-Stakes Initiative Could Ban GMO Farming in Maui County

Monday, June 16

Hawaii Seed Industry Group Revamps Leadership

Thursday, June 12

Kauai Bill Would Remove Tax Benefits for Crop Research

Monday, June 9

Hawaii Farmers, Biotech Industry Challenge Big Island’s GMO Ban

May 2014

Friday, May 16

Hawaii Dept of Health Study Finds Low Levels of Pesticides in Streams

Tuesday, May 13

Maui Anti-GMO Group Is Paying Petition Signature Gatherers $5 Per Name

April 2014

Wednesday, April 30

Taking Root: A Rising Voice in Hawaii’s GMO Politics

Monday, April 28

Will the GMO Debate Fuel Campaign Donations as Local Elections Heat Up?

March 2014

Friday, March 28

Senate Panel OKs Ag Board Nominee Over Opposition from Anti-GMO Activists

February 2014

Thursday, February 20

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz Is Trying to Restore the Heartland of Oahu

Wednesday, February 5

Bid to Override County GMO Restrictions Is Dead — for Now

Sunday, February 2

Hawaii Lawmakers May Consider Growing Industrial Hemp

July 2013

Thursday, July 25

A River Ran Through It: Group Blames State for Wasted Water in Waimea

Tuesday, July 9

GMO Fight Heats Up on Kauai, Big Island

December 2012

Thursday, December 13

New Federal Food Safety Law Confuses Hawaii Farmers, State Officials

August 2012

Thursday, August 16

Hana Ranch Being Sold To Big Wind Developer

June 2012

Tuesday, June 5

Hawaii To Regulate Pesticides in Waterways

January 2012

Saturday, January 21

10 Must Read Stories From The Week Of Jan. 16 – 20

Friday, January 20

Ailing Farm Industry Needs Help From Legislature This Year

December 2011

Thursday, December 8

Hawaii Ag Corporation Ousts Longtime Director in Controversial Vote

November 2011

Monday, November 21

Hawaii Delegates Vote for Pizza As School Lunch Vegetable

Thursday, November 10

Chef Ed Kenney Delivers APEC Dinner

October 2011

Friday, October 28

Akaka Proposes Bill to Combat Invasive Species

Tuesday, October 25

Hoopili Opponents: 30,000 Homes Shovel-Ready in Ewa Area

Monday, October 10

Hawaii Ag Officials Hope to Save Coffee Farms from Spreading Beetle Scourge

September 2011

Wednesday, September 28

Struggles May Be Ending For Kauai Biomass Plant

Wednesday, September 21

Reflections on Big, Hairy, Audacious Ideas for a Hawaii Food Revolution

Tuesday, September 20

A Locavore on Eating Local: It’s a Gateway Drug to Food Reform

Monday, September 5

Expensive Electricity Threatens Hawaii’s Food Security

Trying to be Safe by Doing Nothing is No Longer Safe 

Friday, September 2

Hoopili Opponent: Aloun Farms is the Best Farmland in State

August 2011

Wednesday, August 31

Eat Local Redux – Follow Civil Beat’s Week-long Experiment in Eating Local

Tuesday, August 23

Hate Crimes Against Papayas and Goats?

Friday, August 5

Proposed Big Island Biofuel Plant Attracts Strong Supporters, Vocal Skeptics

July 2011

Friday, July 29

Ho‘opili — A Connected, Sustainable, Healthy-Lifestyle Community

Saturday, July 23

Hawaii Coffee Farmers Call for Nationwide Boycott of Safeway Stores

Wednesday, July 13

Senator Could Give Hoopili Opponents Clout

Monday, July 4

Collaboration Needed for Sustainable Agriculture

Friday, July 1

Ewa Development Hearing All About Optics

June 2011

Thursday, June 23

Hoopili Wins Over Neighborhood Skeptics

Wednesday, June 8

Hawaii’s One-Sided Love Affair with GMOs

May 2011

Friday, May 27

‘Strong, Swift Action’ Needed to Control Big Island Deer

Tuesday, May 24

There’s a Ram Living Above Pearl City

Big Island Plans Response to Deer Sightings

Tuesday, May 17

600-year-old Clues To Ancient Hawaiian Life

Friday, May 6

Session Wrap: Agriculture, Aina Not Top Priorities

April 2011

Tuesday, April 19

Kona Farmers: Coffee Bill On Gov’s Desk Creates More Confusion, Not Less

March 2011

Friday, March 11

Bill Watch: Growing Support For Farm to School

February 2011

Saturday, February 19

Barrel Tax Stuck Until Gov’s Budget Arrives

January 2011

Thursday, January 27

New Session, New Bills on Energy, Agriculture, Land

Wednesday, January 26

Environmental Groups Roll Out Legislative Agenda

Thursday, January 13

Kokubun Back in Senate, Pitching for Opposing Team

Sunday, January 9

Biofuel Solution?

Friday, January 7

HECO: We’re Serious About Biofuels

November 2010

Tuesday, November 23

Coffee Quarantine A Go, Chemicals Optional

Thursday, November 18

I Say ‘Quarantine,’ You Say ‘Protective Measures’

Friday, November 12

Coffee Beetle Leaves State Seeking Quick Fix

October 2010

Saturday, October 9

Aiona’s Shades of Blue: Energy and Sustainability

Friday, October 8

Can’t Miss Comments, Oct. 9 – Food For Thought

Monday, October 4

Rigid Rules, Weak Commitment Hurt Local Farming

From Ground to Grindz — Day 8: A Look Back

Sunday, October 3

School Meals Flunk Local Food Test

Saturday, October 2

Selling Local Food — Shoppers Not Always Willing to Pay the Price

Friday, October 1

Can’t Miss Comments, Oct. 1 – Island Kine Grindz

September 2010

Thursday, September 30

From Grounds to Grindz — Day 4: Reservations About Dinner

Tuesday, September 28

From Ground to Grindz — Day 7: End Is Here

From Ground to Grindz — Day 6: The Final Countdown

From Ground to Grindz — Day 5: Nobody’s Perfect

From Ground to Grindz — Day 4: Touring the Stores

From Ground to Grindz — Day 3: Finding a Rhythm

From Ground to Grindz — Day 1: Ready, Set, Go!

Friday, September 24

Losing Farmland, But Gaining Farmers

Wednesday, September 22

From Ground to Grindz: Trying to Eat Local

Saturday, September 4

Pulling Up Roots, Seed Corn Co. to Leave Kauai

August 2010

Sunday, August 8

The Value of Hawaii: Agriculture by Charles Reppun

July 2010

Tuesday, July 20

UPDATE: Dela Cruz: Farm House Size Limit “Dead”

Tuesday, July 13

Seed Corn, Not Food or Fuel, Is Hawaii’s Biggest Crop

June 2010

Saturday, June 26

Discussion: Hawaii Agriculture

Friday, June 25

Drought Puts Hawaii Ranchers Up the Creek

Tuesday, June 8

Federal Definition Of ‘Farm’ Sheds Light On Honolulu Debate

Wednesday, June 2

Lawmakers do the strangest things: Part I

Agriculture In Hawaii