This past May, the Idaho-based Big Island Dairy confirmed that they dumped 2.3 million gallons of cow manure-tainted water into the streams of Ookala on Hawaii Island. Astonishingly this was not its first offense. Rather, the Dairy was fined $25,000 in May 2017 for unlawful discharge of wastewater

Since 2012, when the dairy was bought by Idaho dairyman Steve Whitesides and expanded into Hawaii’s first confined animal feeding operation, residents have had their pristine waterways turned brown with manure runoff and a constant stench so awful they can’t use their own backyards and must keep windows shut at all times. Many have had to completely cease all recreational and food-gathering activities in the contaminated gulches, and some have even had to go to the local hospital emergency room for infections related to fecal bacteria.

MA’O Organic Farms produces about 1.5 tons of crops each week that one can purchase at local farmers’ markets, Whole Foods Market and FoodlandFlickr: Justin Cravalho

We should not just stand aghast at this egregious violation of our public health protections, but see the story of Big Island Dairy as yet another cautionary tale for our food future.

Since the days of Gov. Neil Abercrombie, state officials have been touting the goal of “doubling local food production.” The political will that motivated the state to set these food self-sufficiency goals matter. Hawaii boasts one of the most powerful and active community food movements in the country. This movement is found in small scale farms, in farm to table restaurants, and in a statewide network of non-profit organizations that are reconnecting people with their aina and the cultural practices that sustained Native Hawaiians pre-contact.

‘Groundbreaking Victories’

Again and again, our food movement has had legislative victories that have inspired the entire world. Such groundbreaking victories include Kauai County Council Bill 2491, Senate Bill 3095, which banned the use of the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, House Bill 1578, which led to the creation of a carbon farming task force aimed at improving soil health, and of course the 2014 Maui Miracle, where voters in Maui County overcame $8 million in campaign spending by Monsanto and Dow to require the companies to perform an environmental and public health impact assessment.

Our movement has not just argued for more local food. We want food that does not harm the people growing it, the people living around where it is being grown, and the people eating it.

Rushing to meet food self-sufficiency goals without critically examining what kind of farms will take us there will likely result in the increase in large-scale environmentally destructive agricultural operations that will exploit our natural resources in ways that maximize profit at the expense of people and the environment. Rumors of a million-hen eggery in Wahiawa prove this point.

Rose Acre is a mainland confined animal feeding operation operator with a history of health problems. As recently as April 13, 2018, after a FDA inspection, Rose Acre egg facility announced a recall of nearly 207 million eggs due to a salmonella outbreak. The health inspection found that these issues of salmonella persisted even after proper cleaning procedures were carried out.

Where will the waste from this operation go? While we would love to see our state produce more food, we should not be willing to trade the safety of future generations and our amazing biodiversity in the process.

Why are we looking to mega-corporations from the continent, again, to drive our agricultural sector?

Despite the rhetoric of Big Ag, small-scale diversified agriculture is neither a joke nor a pipe dream. Rather, in 2013 the UN published a report that determined it is how the majority of the food is produced on our planet.

We have outstanding models for food production in our state that do not trade the well-being of our environment and the public for sector growth and state goals. Take MA’O Farms and Kahumana Organic Farms, for example. Both farms grow tons of organic produce. MA’O Organic Farms produces about 1.5 tons of crops each week that one can purchase at local farmers’ markets, Whole Foods Market and Foodland. MA’O employs dozens of youth from the Waianae Coast, helping them create a nest egg while paying for them to go to college. 

Kahumana Farms, which grew 81,000 pounds of food last year, similarly employs young farmers from Oahu’s west side, while also providing transitional housing for the houseless and programs for adults with developmental disabilities. Both will argue that the challenges organic farms face are primarily on the supply side. Both have rapidly scaled production in the past five years. Both have done so in ways that have profoundly benefitted the community where they are operating.

Complementing these developing agribusinesses are organizations like Elemental Excelerator, Mana Up, and Hawaii Investment Ready, who are growing triple-bottom-line, food-focused enterprises through education, capacity building, and direct investment. These are the projects that deserve state support. These are the stories that should inspire us.

Why are we looking to mega-corporations from the continent, again, to drive our agricultural sector? Haven’t we learned, time and time again, that that they do not have our best interests at heart?

Hawaii has models and practices for food self-sufficiency, dating back centuries, that it can share with the world. Let’s be that global bright-spot, a place that, in pursuit of increasing local food production, develops agricultural models that benefit people, planet, and profit margins. Let’s not become another banana republic exploited by mega-corporations who use our streams, our oceans, and our aina as their toilet.

When elected officials claim to support increasing local food production, they’re speaking to Hawaii’s food movement because they know that we are civically engaged and ready to vote Aug. 11. The food movement will not sit idly by and watch more corporations come into our islands and exploit our food systems, our health and our natural resources for their profit. We’ve stopped them before. We’ll stop them again. I urge our elected officials to get this chapter of our story right.

Editor’s note: The Center for Food Safety is a part of a lawsuit against Big Island Dairy.

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