Thursday, March 14, 2019


Honolulu Star-Advertiser - February 27, 2019

As climate change promises to alter our world in the coming decades, a new study suggests that Hawai`i would be wise to look to traditional Native Hawaiian agriculture to help cope with an uncertain future.

In a scientific paper by researchers from Kamehameha Schools, the University of Hawai`i at Manoa and the U.S. Geological Survey, indigenous agriculture was found to have the potential to play a major role in feeding Hawai`i in the years to come.

It turns out traditional agriculture is resilient and capable of remaining viable even under the most severe future climate scenarios, according to the study to be published next month in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“The kupuna of Hawai`i were farming for millennia with sustainability and no input from the outside,” said Natalie Kurashima, lead author of the study and biologist with Kamehameha Schools.

Climate change impacts in the islands are expected to include coastal flooding, warmer temperatures, extended periods of drought, and hurricanes with greater intensity and consequence, among other things.

The state of Hawai`i has already acknowledged the need for greater food self-sufficiency when it established a target of 30 percent of its food produced locally by 2020.

Getting there in less than a year is probably next to impossible as the state now only produces 13 percent of its food. But Hawai`i should get more serious as a changing climate presents growing risks to our isolated island chain, Kurashima said.

According to a United Nations report on climate change, global warming is expected to decrease agricultural production and have negative effects on other components of food security: access, use and price stability.

In their study, the Hawai`i researchers developed models of three main Native Hawaiian “agro-ecosystems” under current and future climate change scenarios. The models — lo`i (wetland), dryland and colluvial (valley) — incorporate environmental and climatic data to determine areas suitable for certain crops and agricultural systems.

The study’s results suggest that Hawai`i’s traditional agro-ecosystems could have had production levels comparable to consumption today, with production of more than 1 million metric tons of food annually.

The finding lends support to hypotheses that indicate pre-contact Native Hawaiian populations were comparable to Hawai`i’s population today.

The study also showed that urban development in Hawai`i has only slightly reduced potential traditional agro-ecosystems, and the majority of suitable areas — 71 percent — remain agriculturally zoned and thus could be restored without land use restrictions today.

However, like many agricultural lands around the globe, these areas are threatened by land conversion and must be protected from development.

The study found that the projected impacts of three future climate scenarios vary from no change in potential production to decreases of 19 percent in the driest and warmest end-of-century scenario, meaning that vast areas of indigenous agricultural will continue to be viable in the face of ongoing climatic change.

Indigenous agriculture is usually diverse at the farm and landscape levels, often protects natural areas such as patches of forests and streams, and can host as many species as a forest reserve, the study said. It is also able to retain its function and productivity despite damage and recover rapidly.

Kurashima said the restoration of indigenous food systems has benefits beyond food security. For Hawaiians it provides opportunities for strengthening identity, social ties and well-being that are “inseparable from indigenous food,” she said.

There are a growing number of Native Hawaiian revitalization efforts going on across Hawai`i, Kurashima said, but much more can and should be done to make these areas come alive.

The study provides a set of maps showing where these traditional Hawaiian agricultural lands are located.

“Our study provides a new understanding of the food production contribution of indigenous Hawaiian agriculture now and into the future, and really highlights the relevance of restoring indigenous agricultural systems today. These systems are flexible and adaptive, and include both traditional and modern crops relevant today,” said Tamara Ticktin, UH-Manoa botany professor and co-author of the study.