The Hawai’i brand in food production: The power of moving toward Organic Plus

A move to Organic and Organic Plus strategies in food production is how Hawai‘i food producers take back the power of the Hawai‘i brand.

By Joshua Willing, Student, AG100, Introduction to Agricultural Sciences.

Rows of lettuce.
A field of certified organic lettuce grows at Robb Farms in Waimea, Hawai‘i Island. Photo courtesy of The Kohala Center.

Food production in Hawai‘i sits in the middle of a great paradox, at once a lush natural paradise with a perfect climate for growing things, yet isolated, leading to inflated costs for Hawaii’s producers. The future of the Hawai‘i food industry will depend on producers’ ability to navigate a way that respects these inherent costs while utilizing the many benefits of the islands. Producers must decide on a model that best suits the economy.

My argument here is that this model already exists, and by using branding–in this case the brand of Hawai‘i itself–we will mitigate many unavoidable costs while at the same time enhancing the desirability of Hawai‘i’s food products. This will rely heavily on the Hawai‘i food industry as a whole moving toward an “Organic Plus” strategy (going beyond current organic standards), the goals of which coincide nicely with the natural boons of Hawai‘i’s food production.

The brand

First we must discuss the Hawai‘i brand and why it relates so well to Organic Plus strategies.

The natural beauty of these islands is synonymous with paradise on earth. Perceived as pristine and untouched, Hawai‘i has captured the imagination of the world for generations. Traditionally, successful food producers in Hawai‘i have used this imagery to promote their products. But in the modern, more informed, more skeptical world, this imagery has become cliché, lacking any real emotional effect.

As consumers become more informed, and island food production does not adapt, this wonderful Hawai‘i brand loses efficacy. The democratization of information requires transparency in production, and a move to Organic and Organic Plus strategies of production is how Hawai‘i food producers take back the power of the Hawai‘i brand. Utilizing this brand is how Hawai‘i’s producers will thrive in a market that has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years (2008 Sahota).

The principles of Organic and Organic Plus strategies emphasize sustainability, natural ecosystems, biological diversity, fairness in labor, environmental packaging, etc. The modern consumer demands these things, and while there seems to be some confusion (2002 Harper, Makatouni), all these qualities need be satisfied to appease consumer demands. Thankfully, all these things dovetail nicely with how the Hawaiian islands are still perceived around the world.

This is important as the trend in organic agriculture is rising (2008 Willer). Hawai‘i is in a unique position globally when it comes to organic food production; the brand of “Hawai‘i” is a powerful synergy to organic food products. This is something with which farmers in Idaho, or Lithuania, or China just cannot compete. The image the world holds of Hawai‘i’s natural beauty does wonders to advertise the “natural goodness” of Hawai‘i’s food products. Hawai‘i’s food producers who do not leverage this unique opportunity not only do themselves a disservice, but also damage the brand for others. Organic agriculture is the future of world food production, with an ever-increasing annual market share. Not only are they in demand, organic products also demand a premium price, already offsetting some of the increased costs to producers.

The costs

One of the natural costs to doing agriculture in Hawai‘i is the cost of importing goods necessary for food production, as well as the associated costs of shipping final products to markets around the world. This is an unavoidable cost to all industry in Hawai‘i, especially so for the food industry. Traditional practices in food production aggravate this cost. Grain for traditionally raised livestock needs to be imported, pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals all add additional cost to growers. A move to organic and grass-fed alleviates much of this inherent cost, as does focusing on local markets.

Another unavoidable cost to food production in Hawai‘i is inherently high labor costs.  This was the primary reason for the collapse of the historic food products of Hawai‘i, with sugarcane being a primary example. The decline of the Hawai‘i sugar industry coincides directly with Hawai‘i statehood and the concurrent demolition of cheap, slave-like, labor practices.

The United States will never be competitive globally with the developing world on labor costs. Other states in the union have moved to mechanization to replace overly expensive laborers and keep costs competitive in the world markets. Unfortunately, tropical agricultural products are innately labor intensive, defying attempts at mechanization.

Currently, Hawai‘i industries like coffee and pineapple rely on cheaper migrant labor in attempts to keep costs down. It is my contention that this hurts the Hawai‘i brand, with multiple stories coming to light of abuse and near slave-like conditions in some coffee plantations (see 2011 Daranciang).

Hawai‘i will never compete with the developing world for labor costs, and Hawai‘i producers would benefit themselves more by embracing whole-heartedly the Organic Plus principle of fair labor practices. Not only does this contribute to the island economy, providing much needed non-tourism dependent jobs, but this also creates pride in a local product and more consumers for an industry with a focus on local consumption.  On top of these benefits, producers improve the Hawai‘i brand internationally, further offsetting increased costs through an enhanced price point (2006 Winter, Davis).

One cannot overemphasize the importance of branding to Hawai‘i’s food industry, and in this modern age of transparency, it will take a truly authentic organic revolution to satisfy the consumer conscience. Some see organic as merely piece of the agricultural pie, but really what it represents is the new “greener” revolution, overturning the entire pie (1990 Clunies-Ross).

Producing food in the Hawaiian islands will always be fraught with high costs, but rather than fight this, if producers choose to embrace it, they stand to gain far more than short-term profits. Along with these costs, the nature of the islands is prime mental real-estate for a strong Organic consumer base.

Hawai‘i is poised right now to compete internationally for the home of premium food products. Products like Kona Coffee already leverage this in a weak form and it would be simple to transition this and others to a more sustainable, efficient, and profitable model. When led by these major food industries, the strength of the Hawai‘i brand can be strong enough to carry many smaller brands along with it, further growing the island economy, and in turn exponentially growing the brand.

Works cited

Clunies-Ross, T. 1990. “Organic Food: Swimming Against the Tide.” In: Marsden, T. and J. Little. Political, Social and Economic Perspectives on the International Food System. Avebury, Aldershot, UK, p.200-214.

Daranciang, Nelson. “Scope of Isle Labor Abuse Case Widens.” Star Advertiser. Jan. 15, 2011.

Harper, Gemma C., and Aikaterini Makatouni. 2002. “Consumer Perception of Organic Food Production and Animal Welfare.” British Food Journal, Vol. 104 Issue 3/4/5, p.287-299.

Sahota, Amarjit. 2008. “The Global Market for Organic Food and Drink.” The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends. IFOAM/FiBL.

Willer, Helga. 2008. “Organic Agriculture Worldwide: Current Statistics.” The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends. IFOAM/FiBL.

Winter, Carl K., and Sarah F. Davis. 2006. “Organic Foods.” Journal of Food Science. Vol: 71, Issue 9, p117-124. Nov/Dec 2006.

About the author: Josh Willing is an Ag100 student at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.