Rob Parsons

Food Insecurity

Global trends for agricultural lands are worrisome

by Rob Parsons

August 16, 2007

As Hurricane Flossie headed towards the Hawaiian Islands, many local residents scurried to supermarkets for supplies. But should a storm or another drastic event sever traditional lifelines, how much food will actually be available to Maui's 130,000 residents and 30,000 to 40,000 daily visitors?

The scale of sugar and pineapple production for export far surpasses farm operations growing food for local consumption. Then there's our dwindling water resources-should remaining water allocations go to affordable or luxury housing? Golf courses and hotels or residents and farms? Or some combination of all these uses?

The 2004 documentary The Future of Food relates how big business has taken over control of our food supply systems. "We used to be a nation of farmers," Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farms says in the film. "But now it's less than two percent of the population in the United States. So a lot of us don't know a lot about what it takes to grow food."

The so-called "Green Revolution" began to take hold in the mid-20th century, with the promise of new technologies providing higher yields and lower prices. The overall thrust was to systematize agriculture, as we had done with industry.

But large monoculture plantings led to less resistance to insects and disease, which in turn pushed the development of new pesticides and herbicides. The U.S. pesticide industry-exemplified by Monsanto-bought out the seed industry, acquiring patents on more than 11,000 organisms, which raises ethical issues about controlling and modifying forms of life. Genetic engineering of plants continues, as the green revolution has turned into a gene revolution.

Government has generally sided with huge agri-business multinational interests like Monsanto, Cargill and Archers Daniels Midland. Farm Bill appropriations since the Great Depression have attempted to help balance the inequities of supply and demand, with subsidies paid to correct the shortfalls. But studies indicate that 88 percent of $164.7 billion the government paid between 1995 and 2005 went to just the largest 20 percent of farms.

U.S. trade policies and those of the World Trade Organization often dictate how other countries deal with their own food production. Guatemala, Central America's largest corn producer, is also suffering from the "Mexican tortilla crisis." The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 eliminated tariffs on U.S. shipments to Mexico and beyond, allowing U.S. farmers to export low-cost subsidized corn, effectively crowding Latin American farmers out of their own market.

Guatemala is still an agricultural nation, exporting coffee, bananas, sugar and fresh fruits. But they now import $93 million worth of corn from the U.S., with prices soaring due to the rush towards government-supported, corn-based ethanol.

Juan, a self-employed landscaper on Maui, fled Guatemala when he was 15, escaping political upheavals that took the lives of his father and brother. Now a U.S. citizen, he has returned after 20 years to find a changed countryside and economic outlook.

"In Guatemala, 90 percent of the forests are gone," Juan said. "Now it's concrete and houses. Pollution is everywhere. Water goes to big business and agriculture, and the people only have water for three hours, at night.

"Corn came from the Mayans," he continued. "Our people eat it daily, tortillas, tamales. It used to be that you could buy two tortillas for 25 cents. Now it's two tortillas for a dollar. Wages are about 10 dollars a day. My people gonna starve."

Ford Runge, a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota and advisor on international food and agricultural policy, is co-author of the report, "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor." According to Runge, the enormous volume of corn required by the ethanol industry, buoyed by government subsidies, is sending shock waves through the food system.

"The world's poorest people already spend 50 to 80 percent of their total household income on food," Runge wrote. Due to the global impacts of the rising demand for biofuels, "Some of them will tumble over the edge of subsistence into outright starvation, and many more will die from a multitude of hunger-related diseases."

Starting in the 1960's, U.S. government aid organizations introduced "Green Revolution" hybrid rice to Asia. This rice matures in three months rather than six, so it was supposed to end hunger. But it's susceptible to fungus and pests and must be heavily sprayed with herbicides, anti-fungals and pesticides.

Indonesia is a multi-island nation, home to 235 million people. With its soaring population, Indonesia became a major rice importer in 1996, angering local rice farmers upset with the cheaper imports. Government policies attempted to halt the imports and assist Indonesian farmers to increase their yields.

On the island of Bali, upland farmers for centuries cultivated a local strain of "red rice." More nutritious than polished white rice, the red rice is high in Vitamins A and B and helped fight malnourishment. Yet it produced just one to two crops yearly, with lower yields. The government began fining farmers who continued to plant red rice. That's how the people of Bali went from eating organic red rice to ingesting a hybrid, sprayed rice that was polished white.

Robin Lim, who runs a non-profit clinic outside the town of Ubud in Bali, assists local women with childbirth. Writing in Midwifery Today, she related how the change in diet affected the indigenous people:

"According to Mangku Liyer, a healer priest in Pengo Sekan, Bali, 'Within the first season of the new rice I saw women dying, so many dying, bleeding too much after childbirth. Before, when a woman would bleed too much, I could stop the bleeding with herbs and young coconut water. After we began to eat the new rice, I could no longer help the women. I only could help bury them.'

"In June 1998 we arrived at Baguio, Philippines, the home of my mother," Lim continued. "I immediately began to catch babies for the marginalized mountain people. I was astonished to find that these Filipino women, unlike the Indonesian women I had helped, were not hemorrhaging after giving birth. Their secret seemed to be in their food. They were eating organically grown red rice and sweet potatoes. Unfortunately women living a more modern lifestyle (in either the Philippines or Indonesia) in the city and eating commercially grown white rice and fast foods, had higher blood pressure and more postpartum blood loss."

The phenomenon has parallels in studies of the local-kine diet on various ethnic groups in Hawai'i. The "Waianae Diet" study revealed that a return to more traditional foods of taro, yams, fruits, vegetables and fish could help moderate a wide variety of diet-related illnesses like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, cancer and diabetes-diseases that today plague Native Hawaiians.

But who would guess that much of the poi consumed throughout the Hawaiian Islands is made from taro imported from Fiji? Clearly, the worldwide food production chain is a bizarre mish-mash of unlikely scenarios, built upon WTO policies and giant agri-business and fuel company investments, with little regard to local environmental concerns or social justice.

But The Future of Food, with its share of gloom and doom about how market and political forces are changing what the world eats, also offers hope. It explores alternatives to large-scale industrial agriculture, placing organic and sustainable agriculture as real solutions to today's farm crisis.

The Big Island recently commissioned a report, the Island of Hawaii Food System Project Report, prepared by Rocky Mountain Institute. It noted that Hawai'i has just an eight-day food supply, and relies on imports for more than 90 percent of the food consumed.

The Big Island is also hosting a Food Security Symposium in October 2007. The Hawai'i report clearly reveals that for the people of Hawai'i to become better prepared, safer and more secure, we must increase the amount of food that we produce and consume locally.

No similar studies are underway for Maui. But there's much talk throughout the islands of using ag lands to raise crops to convert to ethanol or biodiesel.

Yet, other possibilities are intriguing, and possibly vital to our survival. Claire Kellerman is the founder of the Maui Permaculture Network, and is an enthusiastic practitioner of the land use and community building movement that focuses upon the harmonious integration of humans, plants, animals, soils, and water into a sustainable design system. She notes that Permaculture design principles are based on an ethical, conscious approach to the environment, encouraging self-sufficient human settlements and preservation of Earth's ecosystems.

One element of the design is that rather than rows of monoculture, mixed plantings of annuals and perennials, or "food forests" are created. Key to the permaculture design is establishing agricultural systems that mimic natural ecologies. Kellerman will teach a VITEC course at Maui Community College this fall, called "The Art of Living Sustainably; Creating a Personal Action Plan."

Whether it takes a hurricane ravaging the islands as a wake-up call, it will be wise to support such efforts that help clarify wise personal choices, and enhance the health and well being of living systems both locally and globally.