Quite a few well-intentioned academics, more often than not in the social and ecological sciences, do us no favor by over romanticizing the pre-European contact past of Hawai‘i’s agriculture.
Hawai‘i rightly takes great pride in its rich agricultural history, the mālama ‘āina (deep care, stewardship, and respect for the land) of the Native Hawaiians, and no doubt much can be learned from the past. This being said, most conservation and resource management discussions in Hawai‘i pertaining to the revitalization of local agriculture tend to be far too insular, and focused on Eden-like interpretation of the past and anecdotal commentary for impactful progress to be made on viable paths forward. Yes, pre-European contact agriculture was self-sufficient, organic by practice, and did not rely on external inputs, however many bio-cultural, technological, and socio-political parameters have changed since that time. And there is strong evidence that pre-European contact agriculture and aquaculture had much greater impacts on Hawai‘i’s environment than previously thought (Kirch, 1982; Anderson et al., 2017). Native Hawaiian upland field systems based largely on intensive ‘uala (sweet potato) cultivation in the highly valued locations of greater natural soil fertility would have eventually run into sustainability challenges induced by gradual soil nutrient depletion (Vitousek et al., 2004; Hartshorn et al., 2006). In this regard it is also worth noting that no till aboriculture/agroforestry based on cultivation of ‘ulu (breadfruit) trees had some distinct environmental and subsistence agriculture advantages and should be further investigated (Rolett, 2008).