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.

By Bruce Mathews, dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource ManagementUniversity of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

Sepia colored old print of valley with farmland.
He‘eia Valley, O‘ahu, 1910.
Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews

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).

The study—led by affiliate researchers in the UH Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management—creates a new, combined process to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, produce food and electricity, and reduce deforestation.

Algae cells under microscope.
Microalgae – Nannochloropsis sp. Photo credit: CSIRO.

Researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, in affiliation with Duke and Cornell universities, have co-authored a study that suggests making croplands more efficient through algae production could unlock an important negative emission technology to combat climate change.

Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews

The research, “Integrating Algae with Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (ABECCS) Increases Sustainability,” is funded by a U.S. Department of Energy award and was recently published in the journal Earth’s Future. This funding is a Marine Algae Industrialization Consortium (MAGIC) grant for which Bruce Mathews, dean of the UH Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM), serves as the facilitating principal investigator at UH Hilo. Duke University subcontracted the overall project out to multiple institutions, including UH Hilo.

Student and faculty delegates from all 10 campuses of the University of Hawai‘i System joined together for extensive breakout sessions, brainstorming, strategic planning and more.

By Alexis Stubbs, Sophomore, Tropical Horticulture.

Students working in large open area on campus.
In preparation for showcasing UH Hilo’s sustainability projects during the summit, Professor Norman Arancon’s Sustainable Agriculture class (AG 230) worked together to beautify the surrounding areas and revitalize the nearby Waste Sustainability through Composting and Vermicomposting Project in progress.

Tis the season to be ‘susty’! It’s that time of year again when student and faculty delegates from all 10 campuses of the University of Hawai‘i join together for extensive breakout sessions, brainstorming, strategic planning and more. The 6th Annual Sustainability in Higher Education Summit was hosted on Hawai‘i Island at UH Hilo and Palamanui on February 8-10, 2018, for the first time.

At just $10,000 annual net price, UH Hilo students can prepare themselves for a great diversity of careers in the tropical context, whether government or private sector.

Maria McCarthy handling plants.
UH Hilo student Maria McCarthy performs vegetative propagation on ornamental plants.

The University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo offers one of the top five values in the nation for sustainable agriculture degree programs, according to the online ranking organization UH Hilo’s bachelor of science in tropical plant sciences and agroecology is ranked fourth of 20 in net price in delivering higher education in sustainable agriculture at an affordable price.

In the ranking, UH Hilo is described as offering “the unique angle of tropical plant sciences for those wishing to labor in tropical zones. At just $10,000 annual net price, students can prepare themselves for a great diversity of careers in the tropical context, whether government or private sector.”

Agricultural modernization is essential to enhance the productive capacity of environmentally-friendly integrative farming systems, farm worker and food product safety, and thereby economic return per unit land area.

By Bruce Mathews.

Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews

Whenever there are allegations of pollution or health risks generated by a medium or large scale agricultural operation there are always people who blanket attack modern agriculture, technology, and corporations. They then often advocate for small farms, production methods of the past, or even worse strongly endorse unverified “miracle” practices.

The problem with looking too much to the past is that it can stifle support for innovation which is key to a resilient food-secure future, and rural economic development. Furthermore in our often romanticized view of small farmers feeding half the world we tend to easily forget that many of these people live on a subsistence diet and frequently suffer hunger and malnutrition due to low and (or) inconsistent yields.

There are few annual crops where the farmer can recover costs of high fertilizer and soil amendment inputs required for desired yields coupled with disease and pests in this environment.

By Bruce Mathews.

Bruce Mathews

On January 9, the Hawaiʻi Island Food Alliance Food Access Working Group, together with The Food Basket, The Kohala Center, and the state Department of Health, hosted a presentation in Hilo by Ken Meter (president of the Cross-roads Resource Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota) that was entitled “Growing Secure Food Systems in Hawaiʻi”. The presentation focused on how the pre-European contact native Hawaiians were completely food independent and that the 1900s resulted in a downward spiral in food production in Hawaiʻi, which was particularly rapid from the 1940s onward. The mid 1960s was the last time that about half the food consumed in Hawaiʻi was produced here. The stated goal was to instigate change that results in greatly improved food independence on the Big Island. There was even quite a bit of discussion regarding community-based food systems and avoiding the cash-based economy, and doing food barter.

Students reps come from all 10 campuses of the UH System, and each will be coordinating local action projects on their home island. Alexis Stubbs represents UH Hilo.

Group of students in line for photo.
Representatives from each UH Campus with UH Chair of sustainability, Matt Lynch. (l-r) Matt Lynch (O‘ahu) , Elia Bruno (O‘ahu) , Alexis Stubbs (Hawai‘i Island), Jessica Sevilla (O‘ahu) , Keola Larson (Kaua‘i), and Josh Fukumoto (O‘ahu).

Last month held opportunity for a student sustainability representative from each University of Hawai‘i campus (10 campuses, six islands) to join and collaborate on student sustainability driven initiatives in preparation for the upcoming World Youth Congress (WYC) to be held in Hawai‘i this coming summer.

The UH Hilo representative is Alexis Stubbs, a sophomore specializing in tropical horticulture at the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management.

To prepare for next year’s congress, a three-day retreat was held Nov. 11-13 at Camp Pālehua in Kapolei, O‘ahu. The retreat was titled Aha Ho‘owaiwai (A Whole Community Approach to Wellness) and aimed to reflect the strength of coming together, sharing and caring as a community all in preparation of the Makahiki season. Community from the entire Hawaiian archipelago were present.

Mikey Peirron’s Hilo UrbFarm is a small composting and food garden operation, located at the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center.

By Edward Bufil.

Mikey Pierron stands in garden.
Mikey Pierron gives a tour of Hilo UrbFarm to Ag 24 students.
Garden with raised beds, flats, area covered overhead with tarp.
Hilo UrbFarm, a small composting and food garden operation, is located at the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center.

Looking at a package of basil from Maui, a revelation hit Mikey Pierron: why is Hawai‘i island not food sustainable? This revelation gave rise to Hilo UrbFarm, a small composting and food garden operation, located at the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center.

Composting is a key practice in island sustainability. Hilo UrbFarm develops compost from paper wastes, mulch (from the County Greenwaste facility), and food scraps from local vendors including the Locavore store, Conscious Culture Café, Hilo Sharks Coffee, and Loved by the Sun. By taking greenwaste that would otherwise be added to the near-capacity landfill, Hilo UrbFarm produces compost that will aid the growth of a variety of food crops.

Hilo UrbFarm also grows a variety of herbs and food crops.

Arizona State University is a potential partner for UH Hilo in developing energy science curriculum.

By Philippe Binder, Professor of Physics.

Philippe Binder
Philippe Binder

“Sustainability” is a property of social and biological systems that can remain active and functioning for long periods of time without depleting their resources or causing damage to their surroundings.

This concept has become more widely recognized in recent times. A big landmark was The Limits to Growth, a report on simulations of global population, environment and resources from the early 1970s showing a serious collapse of human population and standard of living, unless measures like a reduction in fertility rate and better care of the environment were adopted.

In the late 1980s, Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report, produced by the United Nations) discussed development and environment as closely related issues, and presented a blueprint for sustainable development.