Thursday, June 13, 2019


Big Island Now - May 21, 2019

Hilo (population 45,648) has the priciest groceries of any American city. Hawai‘i is known for having a high cost of living, but with such a great climate for agriculture, why don’t we produce enough food to affordably sustain our population?

The Problem

Janelle Saneishi, public information officer of the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture, informed us that an estimated 3,000 tons (6 million pounds) of food are imported on a daily basis, according to the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) at a cost of more than $3 billion dollars per year.

Part of the reason food is so expensive is because importers and producers have to increase prices to account for having nearly a third of the food that is imported spoils due to the hot, humid climate before it reaches the shelves. And climate change has the potential to raise costs even more in upcoming years. In addition, at least half of the seafood we consume comes from the mainland. 

Surprisingly, Hawai‘i’s top agriculture export isn’t meant for consumption, including seeds (about half of which are genetically engineered, according to the Hawai‘i DOA). Seed exports were more than twice as valuable as our No. 2 export, macadamia nuts, followed by cattle and coffee.

But not all seed crops in Hawai‘i are genetically engineered (GE). About half of all seed crops grown in the state are conventional crops. GE seed crops are not grown on the Island of Hawai‘i.

You would think, given the markup cost of imported food, we would be able to produce our locally for less money—but we don’t. The Hawai‘i DOA explained that farmers may be discouraged to produce more because there is a bigger profit margin in producing less.

“Hawai‘i has about 1.135 million acres statewide designated as agricultural lands (catch-all),” Saneishi shared with Big Island Now. “These lands include gulches, ravines and steep terrains that are not suitable for growing crops. The 2017 agriculture census estimated total harvested cropland in Hawai‘i at 84,767 acres. Additionally, property rights and free enterprise in the Hawai‘i/U.S. permit farmers and ranchers to freely choose how much to produce or not produce.

Usually, they are motivated to provide more, with higher market prices and higher profits. Government cannot dictate that farmers grow more food. Additionally, the law of supply rules that a higher quantity of supply produced will lower market price with constant demand and thereby lowering profits to farmers....”

How You Can Help
When evaluating the importance of “eating local,” residents should be aware that currently, if a natural disaster were to occur and barges were to stop, it is estimated there would be only three days worth of food left on the shelves in local grocery stores.

Local grocery stores like KTA are also trying to encourage more people to buy local to increase demand and help motivate local farmers. KTA Super Stores Executive Vice President Derek Kurisu, told Big Island Now, “We advertise a lot in our print ads, radio, store signs and speeches to various organizations and classrooms. The emphasis is to promote locally grown or manufactured products.  Our private label, Mountain Apple Brand, consists of locally grown or manufactured products.”

Many fruits and vegetables are actually cost-competitive with imported produce. UH found that 80% of our tomatoes and all of our watercress are produced locally.

According to the Hawai‘i DOA, consumers can be thrifty shopper while supporting local products by making sure to purchase watermelons, mangoes, avocados, apple bananas, dragon fruits, cabbages, Mānoa lettuce, basil, sweet potatoes and macadamia nuts that are produced locally.

Kurisu told Big Island Now that at KTA, “95% of our leafy vegetables in the produce department are locally grown; 100% of our papayas, pineapples and bananas are locally grown; 100% of the melons are purchased locally when in season. Our pumpkins are locally grown during Halloween… In the produce department, we try to support local first. 

Forty-five percent of our local beef sales are local grass-fed beef; 5% of our pork sales are local and 60% of our seafood sales are from local waters. We import frozen seafood like shrimps, butterfish, etc., due to the lack of supply. About 65% of our fresh milk sales were from local dairy before the closing of Hāmākua Dairy and problems with Clover Leaf dairy in Kohala. Today, local milk makes up only about 20% of KTA’s fresh milk sales. Currently, we are working with Clover Leaf to improve our milk supply, so I am confident that within the next three months, it will go back to 65%.“

Another way to encourage food sustainability on our islands is by substituting your starches such as wheat and rice for varieties that can be produced locally, like taro and breadfruit, which sustained ancient Hawaiians....