Rob Parsons

Cultivating Change

Sustainable Living's ISLExpo sows seeds for food, energy security

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
August 21, 2008

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar employees listen to testimony at a meeting of the Commission for Water Resource Management.

Panelists at the Sustainable Living Expo
balance grim news with hope..

hree years ago, the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui introduced itself to the community with a glitzy private lu`au held on the lawn of an oceanfront Olowalu plantation home. To some, it appeared to be just more window dressing for CEO David Cole's complete makeover of Maui Land & Pineapple, Inc., one of SLIM's founding partners.

Panelists at the Sustainable Living Expo balance grim news with hope. But clearly, with last weekend's two-day Island Sustainable Living Expo at Maui Community College, SLIM has hit its stride as an influential force in the community. The ambitious slate of panels, speakers, displays, music and food attracted hundreds of people and generated interest in the push for local food, energy and economic stability.

The seeds of change were evident, from electric vehicles parked on the great lawn to a variety of displays on local building materials, alternative energy strategies and homegrown ideas for food and business. Attendees even found a packet of herb or vegetable seeds stapled inside their conference packet.

Yet there were also reminders of our current limitations and non-sustainable ways: the drone of air conditioning in a room equipped for cross-ventilation, but with windows shut; a food concessionaire using Styrofoam bento containers; and lots of rah-rah rhetoric where clear leadership and action is required.

And why bother planning at all, asked one speaker at the end of a long first day of speakers and panel discussions. Elizabeth Cole, Deputy Director of the Kohala Center on the Big Island was asked to address what it will take to design a Maui Island Food and Energy Sustainability Plan.

"Traditionally in Hawaii," said Cole, "we make big plans but never implement them and they sit on a shelf somewhere." She recommended doing detailed "whole systems analysis" studies, with good number crunchers for energy, and seeking ways to combine different cycles such as converting waste to fertilizer. The Kohala Center has, in fact, prepared research reports covering waste management, food systems and the Hawaii Island Energy Sustainability Plan. She emphasized that we need such good, credible information on which to base our vital decisions for the future.

"We need to cast our nets as widely as possible," Cole said, "and allow for public input, really engage the public. Entrenched thinking is hard to change, so we need to find points of agreement to work from.

"Ideas shouldn't remain in paperwork," she continued. "Don't leave implementation to chance. You need to find dedicated, qualified people and pay them a living wage."

Keynote speaker Michael Hamnett, Executive Director of the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii, began the day with a sobering, no-nonsense message. "Expect a serious drop in tourism," Hamnett said. "It's a bad outlook long-term as our economy sags while energy costs go up."

Hamnett showed figures for the amount of land needed to produce just 20 percent of our ethanol needs from sugar cane-all 47,000 acres currently planted statewide, plus another 83,000 acres. "There ain't enough land and water," he emphasized, "for biofuels at the current technology."

Continually balancing bad news with good news, he said that the $11 billion spent yearly on importing food and energy (fuel=$6 billion, food=$5 billion) can be reinvested locally and represents a, "tremendous market opportunity," to bolster our economy.

Hamnett said scientists predict that even if current green house gas emissions ended tomorrow, they will continue to affect our climate for another 30 years. Coral bleaching, ocean acidification and sea level rise are serious matters to us, he noted.

"Energy conservation," said Hamnett, "is the biggest resource we have and possibly the most underutilized." Reducing fossil fuel use and food imports for greater sustainability will require strong commitments and significant lifestyle changes. "There's no free lunch," Hamnett concluded, while noting, "we'll probably have to eat less meat."

Hamnett's message was echoed by Steve Quirt, Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator for Marin County, in partnership with the University of California Cooperative Extension. "We're going to have to make some major changes," said Quirt, sporting a surfer's mop of graying hair. "All of us, everywhere."

Quirt provided examples of Marin farming operations streamlining the distance from field to market and finding niche markets for "value-added" food products. He stressed the necessity of cooperation and partnerships, and recounted as an analogy how he and several passing motorists stopped and worked together to push a large boulder off a Maui highway during one of his previous visits.

Quirt submitted that one of the easiest ways to partner is to support local farmers. "The commodity system is a stranglehold to the small farmer or the new farmer," he said. "Get closer to your market.

"Make eating locally your personal statement," he added.

Providing an example of community supported agriculture was panelist Gerry Ross of Kula, who grows a diversified variety of vegetables and fruits on a family farm that once primarily raised corn. Customers come by once a week and stock up on seasonal crops, paying Ross $30 for a box of produce. It allows him to spend more time on his four-acre farm instead of transporting goods to market. He's so successful that he now has a long waiting list. "I'm 200 percent over-subscribed," Ross said.

Sprout farmer Vincent Mina said he services 52 accounts, and built his business on, "quality and service." Both Ross and Mina are board members of the Maui County Farm Bureau and Mina also heads the Maui Aloha `Aina Association, which will sponsor its 8th annual Body and Soil Health conference in October, to be held on an Olinda organic farm.

Paul Sheldon, Senior Consultant with Natural Capital Solutions of Eldorado Springs, Colorado, addressed, "The new energy economy and food security." Sheldon said climate change dictates that we, "must act now," and said that it's vital to actively engage in restoration as a business model.

"We are living at a time in which corporations, governments and society must all reinvent themselves," said Shelton. Government subsidies support large agribusiness, not family farms, he added.

"The national grain reserves of wheat, corn, and rice are at fifty-four days, the lowest they have ever been," Sheldon said. "How much is the reserve on Maui?" Other speakers estimated the overall food supply in Hawaii at no more than seven days.

"Nineteen percent of the corn crop is being used to manufacture ethanol," said Sheldon. "Water usage may be even more serious a challenge than energy. What's our long-range plan?"

Sheldon also estimated U.S. energy waste at $300 billion, adding that energy efficiency is vastly untapped.

Sheldon offered a number of other solutions, including whole system design, industrial ecology, bio-mimicry and green nanotechnology. He directed audience members to extensive resources on the Natural Capitalism Solutions website.

A panel discussion on fuel and energy production choices titled From Fossils to Renewables sparked clear differences of opinion through the Expo audience. Maui County Energy Commissioner Victor Reyes echoed the call for the "low-hanging fruit" of energy efficiency and conservation while noting that Maui Electric Company, "earns more by selling more."

"We can't afford to have MECO fail," said Reyes. "We need to make sure the utilities get their fair share of returns."

That remark didn't sit well with audience members who noted Hawaii pays the highest electric rates in the nation and that fuel costs are passed directly to ratepayers. As panelist Kelly King of Pacific Biodiesel put it, "We're missing some shared values and goals. We need to help small businesses and ratepayers, not just MECO."

MECO President Ed Reinhardt conceded that they waited too long to "green our power plants." He also expressed that changes won't necessarily be cheaper.

Retired MCC Economics professor Dick Mayer took the microphone and told Reinhardt he had been part of an energy planning group ten years ago that had urged MECO to make changes and wondered why they hadn't done so.

"I wasn't president back then," said Reinhardt with a smile.

Other speakers recommended solutions that included decoupling the public utility from profits, seeking advanced energy storage systems for cheap, abundant renewables such as wind and limiting liquid biofuels to transportation usage, not electrical generation. Maui Electric consumed about 73 million gallons of diesel fuel in 2006.

"If we want to look at what are the most promising fuels for Maui," said Pacific Biodiesel's King, "first, we must look at our available resources." Pacific Biodiesel produces fuel from recycled vegetable oil, a resource that at one time was dumped in the landfill.

Kohala Center's Elizabeth Cole's comment that we must, "cast our nets as widely as possible," is particularly apropos given that the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui's logo is a Hawaiian throw net fisherman. The practice requires timing, patience and skill and can only happen after countless hours spent constructing the net.

SLIM Executive Director Alex De Roode, assistant Alyse Takeyesu and staff, volunteers and sponsors deserve high praise for coordinating of a topnotch ISLExpo. By pooling and coordinating talent and making swift, wise decisions, Maui may soon begin to pull in local resources to meet more of its needs, just as native shore fisherman have done in Hawaii's recent sustainable past.

For more info see: natcapsolutions.org; mauialohaaina.org; sustainablemaui.com; learning.kohalacenter.org; agroforestry.net.