Column: COVID-19 impacts should prompt isles to devise a clear strategy for food and ag sustainability

Torri Donley

When COVID-19 shut down the state, industry groups and leaders sought strength in numbers as they desperately looked for ways to ride out the pandemic. The need to pool resources became even more acute as spring slipped into summer, and as we now enter fall. Clearly, the pandemic is not […]

When COVID-19 shut down the state, industry groups and leaders sought strength in numbers as they desperately looked for ways to ride out the pandemic.

The need to pool resources became even more acute as spring slipped into summer, and as we now enter fall. Clearly, the pandemic is not going to be a short-term bump in the road.

The Star-Advertiser was right to remind us of the precariousness of our food security dilemma (“Save our farmlands,” Our View, Aug. 29) — especially in the context of hurricane season, with port closures caused by natural disasters having the potential to leave Hawaii’s people without food in five to seven days, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

The Agricultural Response and Recovery Working Group — since renamed the AgHui — was formed in March by a diverse group of Hawaii ag stakeholders to address not only the devastating impacts of the pandemic, but also to establish a progressive foundation for our local food and ag system. The collaboration brought together farmers, ranchers, nursery owners, government and private sectors, and individuals working across Hawaii’s agriculture and food supply chain.

To address the impacts of COVID-19 on our agriculture industry, and to address underlying systemic weaknesses, the AgHui is working to develop a long-term roadmap for viability and sustainability across the state. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated critical areas where Hawaii’s food systems are most vulnerable, including the direct impacts on farmers who are struggling to pivot into new markets during times of crisis.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture estimated in early summer that local farmers and ranchers have suffered a 50% decline in sales. Based on data from Hawaii’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, that means losses in sales for local food producers may be averaging $2 million per week.

The AgHui’s plan is strategically divided into three elements:

First, stabilize the industry with emergency loans and grants, loan and rent deferrals, direct payments to farmers, and assistance for community feeding programs.

Second, provide a path toward reopening and recovery with a variety of government and private investments in local agriculture, including updating antiquated infrastructure and supporting regional food hubs and producers contributing to food security.

Third, build a resilient food and agricultural economy with strong businesses, job growth, food secure households, and food system policy and planning.

Moreover, the AgHui has identified more than 120 “shovel-ready” agriculture investment projects that would:

>> Create 2,500 new jobs statewide.

>> Generate $57 million in additional revenue annually.

>> Diversify the state’s economy.

>> Advance the state closer toward food security and sustainability.

The $162 million investment in these projects would have an annual statewide multiplier effect of $114 million in sales, $28.5 million in earnings, and $3.42 million in tax revenues, and they would enable actors in our local agricultural system to scale and thrive — to our collective benefit.

The plan is also a blueprint for how the state can continue to work toward its goals of building a more sustainable economy and protecting Hawaii’s agricultural and natural resources. Further details of the plan and investment opportunities can be found at aghui.org.

At the core of any sustainable economy and community is a robust, resilient local food system. This begins with strong support for our farmers, growers, ranchers and all those involved in our local food supply chain.

We have a plan and it’s a good one — but we need everyone’s support, both inside and outside of the industry, to realize our goals and bring critical food security to Hawaii’s people.


Chris Lee is vice president of farm operations at Pono Pacific; Nicole Milne is vice president of food and agriculture initiatives at The Kohala Center. They are members of AgHui.


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