Making Hawaii a hub for agricultural innovation could be one solution to a changing climate, fraying supply chains and persistent infrastructure issues that plague the local food system.

That’s according to the organizers of the inaugural Tropical AgTech Conference, set to be held June 22-23 in Hilo. The event features innovators and entrepreneurs who will share their experiences in an effort to help the state’s food system.

But the conference organizers have a broader vision in mind: Turn the state into an agricultural technology hub, where innovators are lured to invest and develop their work before taking their tech to the rest of the tropics.

Because Hawaii’s food system shares so many traits with countries around the region — dominated by small farmers, who have to contend with changing weather patterns, invasive species, limited land and the high cost of doing business — it makes sense, according to event co-organizer Jim Wyban.

Coffee Big Island Hawaii Grown Kona Rainforest
Coffee growers on Big Island have been among the early adopters of renewable energy and technology to optimize processes. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

“Looking at this space, it’s wide open. All of the tropics need this,” Wyban said. “They’re all kind of underperforming in terms of agricultural production. (We are) very high in food insecurity in the tropics.”

Wyban, a long-time marine geneticist, and co-organizer Jason Ueki have a personal interest in shrimp, having worked for years in the industry. They believe they can replicate a model of globalizing a product developed in Hawaii — pathogen-free shrimp — for many different agricultural enterprises.

What Is Agricultural Technology?

The concept of agricultural technology is simple: it takes technological innovations and applies them to the agricultural sphere, whether by using drone technology or artificial intelligence to monitor crops or using genetics to improve yields. Or technologies that are developed specifically for agriculture.

Because small farmers often subsist on their crops globally, or do not have the same cashflow as massive operations growing grain or raising livestock, they have not been part of the innovation process thus far, according to Ueki.

A majority of Hawaii’s farms earn under $10,000 per year and average 16 acres. That presents an opportunity too, as globally the average sized farm is smaller than 2.5 acres, according to Our World in Data.

Hawaii Grown Hua Orchards Drone
Drones are often flown over orchards or farms to assess damage, water resources and pests, among other things. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

That means the lion’s share of the world’s agriculture is technologically underserved, despite feeding so many people. One key concern is that the agricultural sectors in the tropics do not have the buying power, but it is technology that holds the key to that issue — they just have not been developed or tailored to small farms yet.

“Technology is actually what’s needed to improve that, to increase productivity and efficiency. But it comes at a cost,” Ueki said. “The challenge is huge, but the market size for it, some 510 million farms, could get tremendous value from it.”

University of Hawaii Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources works on the ground with the state’s farmers, helping them to navigate the challenges of farming and livestock production through its extension service.

Ueki says the university’s role is critical for integration and development of new and emerging technologies.

CTAHR interim Associate Dean Jeff Goodwin says technology holds the solution to many of their problems, whether high-tech or low, in dealing with pests, high costs for imported fertilizers and other agricultural products upon which farmers have become reliant.

And as state lawmakers continue to talk about decreasing Hawaii’s heavy reliance on imported food, technology is seen by many as a key part of the solution by also lowering the need for imported goods that have become relied upon to actually grow food.

“Some of the best advances that we can make in this state is through technology,” Goodwin said. “Not only for increased production but decreased pesticide use.”

Soil Bob Shaffer Coffee Big Island Hawaii Grown
Agricultural technology is focused on everything from aerial imagery to assessing and addressing issues with soil, which is a key issue in remediating the legacy of Hawaii’s plantation era. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

Technology could also hold the key to addressing the state’s land-based limitations through vertical farming, Goodwin says, while indoor operations could help address the forecasted climate change issues farming faces.

Why Do We Need It?

The cost of doing business as a food producer in Hawaii is inordinately high compared to the rest of the U.S., for reasons of labor, the cost of farming products, climate and pests.

For just about every issue, there seems to be some sort of technological solution. But agricultural innovation has a testy history in Hawaii, thanks to seed and agrochemical companies’ long rap sheet of environmental infractions.

The idea of being a proving ground for dangerous and environmentally dubious practices has changed though, Ueki says, as climate change and sustainable agriculture have taken a more prominent place.

“The thing that we have the least control of is the climate. And that’s changing to a point where it’s already disrupting food production,” Ueki said, adding that it’s not just in Hawaii or the tropics, it’s everywhere. “Technology, I think, is the most sensible way to move forward in trying to deal with all of the complexities of today’s world.”

Part of that complexity is dealing with farmers’ bottom lines too, which Ueki says is too often left out of the conversation. Because if farming is not profitable, it does not have a future.

Looking Out And In

The United States Agency for International Development is one agency currently working with technologies in the agricultural sector globally, with a focus on the greater nexus of food, water and energy production.

USAID’s Water and Energy for Food program focuses on the confluence of its three titular subjects to help communities in the 38 countries where it works by investing in climate-friendly innovations.

Those programs are aimed at optimizing water usage while boosting agricultural production, using agricultural waste from livestock or crops to create biofuel and other small, circular economies.

Ku McMahan, team leader for WE4F, says Hawaii’s environment makes it an apt place for a hub, given its many microclimates. The state could be a good case study for the rest of the world.

“The bread and butter of what we do is to work around these challenges so that we have a way to deal with the drought or changing weather patterns or a lack of access to water,” McMahan said. “I believe what we’re seeing globally can help Hawaii locally.”

And, eventually, that could put Hawaii in a position to start contributing to the rest of the world’s food system, he says.

“(It) could be a model for other parts of the world where it’s a little bit slower to develop,” McMahan said. “There’s also a need for innovation — to address either upcoming droughts or changes in water patterns or climate patterns — that Hawaii could be a leader in if the right resources were put in place.”

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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