Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Musings: Cuz We're Hungry

The wind woke me this morning, the kind of cool, gusty wind that blows up from the valley and sets the curtains fluttering and gusts through the camphor trees and rubs the guava branches against the house.

But it had disappeared by the time Koko and I set out into a warm, muggy world of gray upon gray, and then the sun appeared and bled briefly into the sky before its flow of pink light was staunched by the clouds.

Ran into farmer Jerry, who had a day of planting papaya before him, and it got me thinking again about food, and its production here on Kauai, especially since just the afternoon before I’d picked up bags of fabulous fresh produce from John and Nandanie Wooten at what seemed to me an impossibly low price.

I heard there was a run on rice here on Kauai while I was on Lanai. Apparently Wal-Mart ran out, prompting some folks to think the food shortages that are hitting the rest of the world were extending to the Islands. So they made a run on rice in the other stores, buying 10 to 20 bags at a crack and quickly clearing the shelves.

Jerry said that in the plantation days, he knew many Filipinos who kept 100 pounds of rice under the bed. If the food supply was disrupted, they could always eat from their gardens, go fishing, buy a cow or kill a goat and live pretty well so long as they had rice, their staple. And I thought, at least they have gardens, and know how to fish, hunt and butcher their own meat. But what about all the people on Kauai who don’t?

The subject of food came up several times in my discussions with Lanai residents. Even that relatively arid island was totally self-sufficient at one time, Kepa Maly told me, with the island’s 3,200 residents — that's the 1823-25 missionary guesstimate; pre-contact could have been 6,000 — cultivating taro and giant sweet potatoes (some large enough to fill a 5-gallon bucket) and getting fish and other goodies from the sea.

The resident population still hovers at around 3,200, but nearly all the food now comes in on the barge, except some of the wealthy newcomers actually ship in their own grinds via Fed Ex.

We’ve gotten so spoiled — and so complacent — about something that is crucial to our survival.

Meanwhile, I heard on Democracy Now! yesterday about the food protests that continue around the globe. “Aid experts say soaring global prices for food and fuel threaten to push 100 million people worldwide into hunger,” it reported.

While millions feel the pangs of hunger, who benefits? You guessed it — the fat cat multinational corporations:

A new report from the non-profit group GRAIN has found that global agribusiness firms, traders and speculators are raking in huge profits due to the global food crisis. Cargill, the world’s biggest grain trader, achieved an 86 percent increase in profits from commodity trading in the first quarter of this year. The agribusiness giant Bunge had a 77 percent increase in profits during the last quarter of last year. And Archer Daniels Midland Company registered a 67 percent increase in profits in 2007.

And here we are in Hawaii, the most isolated inhabited land mass on Earth, importing virtually every morsel we eat, with at most an eight-day supply of food in the stores. And with airlines closing and fuel prices soaring, what are we doing? We’re giving up our ag land to luxury homes and vacation rentals, squandering our precious water to irrigate non-native landscaping and acres of grass in the heat of mid-afternoon.

Do we really think we’re immune to food shortages and hunger here? It’s been a constant in Island life and for many of our poorest residents, it still is, and that situation is likely to worsen as food prices rise. I’ve had locals my age tell me they used to catch doves and rice birds for after-school snacks because they didn’t have enough to eat.

So what are those in a position to make a difference, like Grove Farm, Kauai’s largest private landowner, doing to address this precarious situation?

An article in this week’s Kauai People has GF President Warren Haruki tooting the company’s horn in the area of diversified agriculture, citing as an example its efforts to grow wetland taro in Mahaulepu.

It quotes Haruki as saying:

"We would encourage potential farmers or others interested in participating in that effort to contact us."

But farmers familiar with Grove Farm’s operations tell me that’s not how it is. It’s more of exclusive thing; in fact, GF actually kicked out some guys who were already growing taro there so they could bring in their own man.

As one source told me: “All the people on their [Grove Farm’s] lands, even the ranchers, are very worried because they all have short term leases that are heavily weighted toward GF, and that GF can get out of easily.”

Does that sound like a long-term commitment to diversified ag, or a company that wants to make sure it’s ready to roll when real estate prices start edging up again? But it makes for good PR, just like Haruki’s comment about the company’s Oahu aquaculture enterprise:

"It’s another initiative to basically grow what we eat in the state - food security."

Meanwhile, Grove Farm sells land to Costco, which imports everything and undercuts the prices of every farmer on the island.

And then I hear that Gay & Robinson, which has 7,000 acres of its own in sugar cultivation, is now angling to get the state-owned Kalepa Ridge lands, which represent the public’s last chance for affordable farmland on the eastside, for a bagasse bioenergy plant.

Our other major landowner, A&B, is busy growing coffee and building luxury homes in Poipu.

My point is that the big landowners are not looking out for the long term interests of the people of this island when it comes to food — or anything else, for that matter. So it's up to us, guys.

We need to make sure that public ag lands are used for food farming, not energy projects, and that crucial water resources are pried loose from Grove Farm and A&B, which have development, not agriculture, on their mind.

We need to advocate for farmer training programs to help those who want to farm learn the skills needed to do it successfully. We need to keep planting food of all kinds in our own yards. And we need to support the efforts of local farmers even if it means paying a bit more for our food.

Because if we don’t, bumby we’re gonna find our opu is not full, but empty.


Andy Parx said...

Why do we allow GF and A&B to control development? Does it seem less than a coincidence that you can’t throw a rotten mango down at the County offices without hitting someone who either has or will work for them, especially in the Planning Department... the department that is going to determine “important” ag lands? Is it coincidence that ex-GF employees in Planning are inserting GF and A&B’s development plans into the County’s Lihu`e development plan instead of doing their own?

Anonymous said...

This website gives you background of the importance of food independence:

If you read only one article, this is the one. Hawaii must start growing its own food. If sustainability means anything, it means food independence. It's the one issue where we pretty much all agree.

Joan Conrow said...

Thanks for the link, Randy. That's a very intriguing article.

Anonymous said...

Them belly full but we hungry
A hungry mob is an angry mob
A rain a fall but the dirt it tough
A pot a cook but the food no 'nough

Cost of livin' gets so high
Rich and poor they start to cry
Now the weak must get strong
They say oh, what a tribulation
Them belly full but we hungry
A hungry mob is an angry mob
A rain a fall but the dirt it tough
A pot a cook but you no 'nough

Forget your troubles and dance,
Forget your sorrows and dance,
Forget your sickness and dance,
Forget your weakness and dance

Anonymous said...

With the high cost of airline tickets and the recession, it doesn't look good for tourism. We may have to grow our own food because we won't be able to pay for it.