We are facing unprecedented ecological and public health challenges driven by agriculture and the food system.

We now have a choice: We can use our scientific and traditional knowledge to understand and transform the food system of Hawaii toward sustainability, climate change resilience, human health and aloha.

Or, we can squander this opportunity only to pay dearly down the road through unfulfilled human potential, the degradation of Earth’s life support systems and immeasurable climate- and disease-related suffering and loss of life.

Agriculture And Infectious Diseases

The ongoing spread of the coronavirus and the resultant COVID-19 disease pandemic have exposed many systemic vulnerabilities to health care, the economy and to the normal functioning of society world wide.

As the current crisis deepens, claiming more and more lives and livelihoods, it behooves us to consider the origins of many virulent diseases: agriculture and the larger food system.

Farming areas at Hoa Aina O Makaha hosting visiting national media representatives in Makaha, Waianae. 30 may 2017
Garden areas at Hoa Aina O Makaha in Waianae in 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic should mobilize Hawaii to reconsider how it approaches agriculture and the food system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It is through the rapid expansion of agriculture and human development into wild ecosystems combined with the specific ways that we produce food — as large scale industrial monocultures of plants and animals — that increases our susceptibility to deadly pathogens and diseases.

A 2019 review of the scientific literature has found that since 1940, agricultural drivers were associated with more than 25% of all — and greater than 50% of infectious diseases caused by germs that spread between animals and people. These percentages are anticipated to increase along with human population growth and the further expansion and intensification of agriculture.

An incomplete list of deadly pathogens recently emerging from agriculture include H5N1-Asian Avian Influenza, H5N2, multiple Swine Flu variants (H1N1, H1N2), Ebola, Campylobacter, Nipah virus, Q fever, hepatitis E, Salmonella enteritidis, foot-and-mouth disease, and a variety of influenzas.

These types of pathogen outbreaks are occurring at an increased frequency globally and represent only a fraction of the “hidden” costs imposed on humanity and the environment by the modern food system.

Our Food System’s Hidden Costs

The food system is the No. 1 driver of global environmental change and the primary cause of the chronic diseases — diabetes, heart disease, obesity — responsible for U.S. citizens now living shorter and sicker lives.

Though a remarkable achievement of science, technology and economic efficiency, modern food production is increasingly laying waste to natural resources, wild ecosystems and human lives.

The food system generates an estimated 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously compromising air, water and soil quality, ecosystem function and biodiversity.

Waterfall in Wailua Maui.
A waterfall in Wailua, Maui. Agriculture is a huge drain of fresh water resources. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The food system is also an important social determinant of public health, with low-quality diets often consumed by poor communities being a significant factor in the substantial rise of diet-related chronic diseases globally.

Agriculture uses an astonishing 70% of the world’s fresh water resources.

It is well documented that pesticide exposure drives the loss of crop pollinators, negatively impacts biodiversity and increases the risks of cognitive developmental disorders in children along with certain types of cancers.

Modern farming practices increase soil erosion, desertification, habitat loss, water pollution with fertilizers and the development of genetic resistance to antibiotics in pathogens to name only a few.

Importantly, feeding the anticipated 10 billion people by 2050 with a healthy and sustainable diet will simply not be possible without significantly changing our eating habits, improving food production techniques and reducing food waste.

Systemic Vulnerabilities

Through the rapid and devastating expansion of COVID-19, we once again see how Hawaii’s critical systems like our food supply are also vulnerable to natural and human-caused disasters. Were the COVID-19 pandemic to continue during Hawaii’s hurricane season — and it may very well do so — one can envision a cascade of negative consequences to our food security, health and wellbeing.

With the closest port of call 2,345 miles away in Oakland, California, the Hawaiian islands are home to one of the most geographically isolated and food-import dependent populations in the world. Though varying considerably by commodity group, the state of Hawaii imports approximately 90% of its food and over 73% of its energy.

All of our critical infrastructure — airports, seaport, fuel refinery and power station — lies along the same 12-mile stretch of low-elevation coastline on the south shore of Oahu. At any given time, we have a 5-7 day supply of food in the state.

Vulnerable Communities

Hawaii’s low-income residents are especially vulnerable, with the high cost of living combined with a low minimum wage contributing to the state’s high poverty rate (14%).

These key factors contribute to moderate to high rates of household food insecurity, the frequent consumption of low-quality, ultra-processed and fast foods, and the generation of significant health disparities in the low-income and indigenous communities of Hawaii.

Further, legal cases over indigenous land and water rights remain unresolved for many Hawaiian communities, while concerns over the environmental quality, human health, economic viability of local agriculture and biocultural self-determination feature prominently in debates about the future of food and agriculture in Hawaii.

The above conditions raise critical questions as to whether the food system of Hawaii is capable of delivering adequate nutrition in times of disaster and can meet the ecological, economic, cultural, public health and food security needs of its residents and visitors over the long-term. The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic has brought this question into sharp focus.

There are several actions that should be pursued right now to help build greater food system resilience and equity in Hawaii. We need to increase the quantity of in-state storage of critical foods in commercial and government-held food reserves outside known inundation zones. This will require developing new coordination protocols between commercial food distributors and city, county, state and federal emergency management agencies.

It is time to seriously develop a comprehensive outreach, education and financial incentives program to achieve the long recommended yet to be achieved 14-day supply of food and water for Hawaii residents. Coupled with back-up food supplies, we need to be able to rely more on local food production.

There are several actions that should be pursued right now.

We must find ways to further incentivize and support local and diversified agriculture through addressing the land, labor and capital challenges farmers face and encourage greater home production of taro, breadfruit, sweet potato, and other staple foods. Building our local food system will require many actions, including land use ordinances that support the restoration and scaling of traditional farming systems, aquaculture, fisheries management and food ways.

10-Year Vision And Goals

Our vision for Hawaii’s food system begins by engaging a robust network of community actors, educational institutions, foundations and state agencies to work in collaboration to integrate sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management to enhance the environmental, economic and social health of all people in Hawaii.

Our ambition is great, but so too is the opportunity. Over the next 10 years, this network could pursue the following goals:

  • generation of a stable base of locally-owned and family farms using ecologically-based production practices and local inputs:
  • biocultural restoration of traditional Hawaii land and seascapes;
  • marketing and processing practices that create direct links between farmers and citizens;
  • secure access for all community members to an adequate, safe, affordable, culturally-appropriate and nutritious diet;
  • food and agriculture-related businesses that create jobs and re-circulate financial capital within Hawaii’s economy;
  • living wages for all people and enhanced working conditions for agricultural and food system laborers;
  • expansion of state food and agriculture policies that promote local and sustainable food production, processing and consumption;
  • widespread adoption of dietary behaviors that reflect concern about individual, environmental and community health and well being; and
  • food system planning and infrastructure development efforts to achieve resilience to natural and human-caused disasters.

The ‘Ike ‘Ai Consortium

‘Ike ‘Ai is a multi-institutional research, education, policy analysis, planning and community engagement initiative designed to transform Hawaii’s food system to achieve state and UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Specifically, ‘Ike ‘Ai is designed to achieve and exceed the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 relating to hunger, food security, sustainable agriculture and food system resilience.

The project is named ‘Ike ‘Ai, from the Hawaiian words for “knowledge” and “food,” respectively.

Key objectives of ‘Ike ‘Ai are to achieve and sustain, through agri-food system change in Hawaii, the following goals:

  1. ecological sustainability;
  2. social equity;
  3. human health and nutrition;
  4. biocultural restoration of Hawaii’s land and seascapes;
  5. climate change adaptation and mitigation;
  6. security/disaster preparedness; and
  7. sustainable economic development.

Its goal is to promote food system development in Hawaii that is data driven, ecologically sustainable and socially just.

A Call To Action

We have decades of robust natural and social science research to support transformative change toward sustainability, human health and well being. We now need to act.

We must apply our intellectual, financial and natural resources toward creating a new ecological society starting with transforming the food system.

Multi-sector and multi-institutional collaboration is the only way forward and our local people, institutions, Hawaiian values and our innovative models — grounded in place — will provide the essential leadership.

We must pause and make a conscious decision: We can continue to pay indirectly through the unnecessary loss of lives, economic downturns and profound levels of human pain and suffering, or we can invest in prevention, diversity, resilience, health and stability.

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