Upon moving to Hawaii in 1987, I recall asking a seasoned journalist and lifelong resident why a state with abundant land, water and sunshine couldn’t feed itself. “It’s the brass ring that Hawaii just can’t seem to grasp,” he replied.
Three decades later, despite ample lip service paid to the dream of food security by legislators and lobbyists, academics and activists, Hawaii still imports more than 80 percent of its food. And with each passing year, the elusive brass ring moves further out of reach.
It wasn’t always that way. Prior to western contact, Hawaii supported an indigenous population estimated at more than 1 million through the intensive monoculture of taro, banana and sweet potato. Its self-sufficiency continued through the first half of the 20th century, even though its farm sector was dominated by export crops like sugar cane and pineapple.
But with the advent of refrigerated cargo ships, California’s vast agricultural system, cheap labor in developing nations and a consumer palate desirous of delicacies in any season, Hawaii soon found itself unable to economically compete. It’s cheaper to import almost anything than produce it in the Islands.
Now, however, Hawaii’s agriculture is facing an even greater threat than economics: unrelenting attacks by activists. Ironically, they’re the very same ones most apt to crow “buy local,” even as they systematically undermine farmers in a quest to advance their own political ambitions. They’ve found agriculture to be a far weaker target than their old foes — the military and tourism — so their sociopolitical agendas are increasingly framed by narratives that denounce farming as the toxic, greed-driven practice of callous corporations.
Most recently, they’ve added “water-sucking vampires,” “thieves” and “pirates” to their list of disparagements as they gun for agricultural water under the guise of sticking it to Alexander & Baldwin, one of the last “Big 5” landowners from Hawaii’s plantation era. This, too, is part of their formula, since it’s awfully easy to incite the public, or at least a loud enough fringe, when there’s a convenient bogeyman to malign.
But as is true in most wars, though the “big guys” are the target, the “little guys” are the inevitable collateral damage. Smallholder ranchers and farmers who are producing the local food that activists say they want to eat end up paying the price. They’re the ones who suffer the sleepless nights, the economic uncertainty that makes it impossible to plan and unwise to invest in their own operations. They’re the ones who are least able to afford lawyers, regulatory compliance, Environmental Impact Statements, lobbyists or even showing up at the state capitol to make their case.
They’re the ones who are increasingly demoralized by the ugly assaults on their character, their motives, their farming practices, their families. They’re the ones who are left to twist in the shifting political winds. As one weary farm leader noted, “Between the activists and the bureaucrats, it’s just too much. Our morale is so low I can’t even rally the troops anymore.”
And who can blame them? In recent years, activists have waged bloody battles at both the county and state levels over growing genetically modified crops — Hawaii has a large and lucrative GM and hybrid parent seed industry — disclosing pesticide use, banning certain pesticides, imposing buffer zones around farms, burning sugar cane fields and most recently, accessing water for farming.
Though the activists say they’re trying to protect Hawaii’s environment, they somehow fail to note that their relentless destruction of agriculture comes at its own environmental price: the massive carbon emissions associated with transporting food thousands of miles to the most isolated inhabited landmass on Earth.
Unlike the farmers and ranchers who have devoted their lives to agriculture, these activists have nothing at stake, no dog in the fight. Indeed, they stand only to gain, both through the fundraising that accompanies their practice of conflict activism and their desire to obtain political power.
Like politicians everywhere, many of Hawaii’s lawmakers are cowardly, opportunistic and willing to cave the moment the drummed-up outcry grows loud enough, which is why they rejected a bill that would have kept the water flowing. Some, like state Sen. Kai Kahele, even make silly, gratuitous comments in a bid to curry favor with the activists: “This is a generation that is awakened. It’s a generation that is intelligent and knows its history. It sticks to its core values.”
Actually, the activists span several generations, have no recognizable core values other than a shared opposition to modern agriculture, are shockingly ignorant of Hawaii’s history and largely limit their education to the teachings of their social media echo chamber. And rather than “awakened,” they’re sleepwalking through a dream of romanticism, nostalgia and self-interest. But then, Kahele probably didn’t notice, because, like him, they’re prone to grandstanding, with a distinct disregard for reality and the truth.
They can’t yet control Hawaii’s political machine, so they’re trying instead to control Hawaii’s agriculture — even though they don’t understand how easily the local farmers markets can be flooded, the impossibility of processing livestock with a dearth of slaughterhouses, the unrelenting challenges of pests and plant diseases in the tropics, the need to supply both local and export markets, the role that the big growers play in supporting the smaller ones, the value of preserving Hawaii’s irrigation systems. These are the people who demand local food as they fight ranching and dairy operations, who reject any conventional ag practice as “industrial farming,” who rail against corporations even as they pull out their iPhones to wax poetic about the awesome organic offerings at Costco and Whole Foods.
Which is why they can earnestly claim, “of course we support small farmers,” even as they systematically act to destroy their livelihoods and lives.
Well, actions speak far louder than words. Especially when the words are so often clichés and lies. When the water stops flowing and the farms dry up and the cattle are culled, they’ll be left with the consequences of their actions — gentrification, tourism and expensive imported food.
And they still won’t have a seat at the political power table.