250 years ago, Native Hawaiians had already met and exceeded a goal set forth by Governor David Ige in 2016: They nourished and maintained a complex system of agriculture that sustainably fed a population estimated to number approximately 800,000 – that’s 100 percent local food production. It’s a figure that in today’s world of convenience and globalization seems far out of reach, but while the state attempts to meet ambitious goals to double local food production from 2016 numbers by next year, looking to the past (to before even Captain Cook’s feet touched Hawai‘i’s sand) may play an important role in planning a sustainable and food secure future. At least that’s the gist of an article published last week in the scientific journal Nature.
After giving a background into the unique factors affecting Hawai‘i including geological isolation, a high percentage of imported foods (87 percent), a significant indigenous population, and impending effects of climate change, the authors lay out the case to investigate the intersection of indigenous agriculture, food production, and climate.
“Our results suggest that the amount of food that could have been produced traditionally is comparable to the amount of food that Hawai‘i consumes today, albeit different types. Our models indicate that historically, Kanaka Maoli could have produced a maximum of about 1.02 million [metric tons] of food annually, using 100,789 cultivatable hectares, which does not include protein from animals both on land and sea,” the article states.
However, with development, present-day land use, and climate change projections, the areas traditionally used for agriculture are not all available to produce this amount of food. Yet, the numbers are a testament to the efficiency of indigenous agricultural methods.
In contrast to the indigenous practices of Hawaiians, the study adds, “the current agricultural system in Hawai‘i encompasses about 369,583 [hectares] of active agricultural lands (both cropland and pasture), yet only 151,700 [metric tons] of local food is produced annually, just 13 percent of all food consumed. This illustrates the efficiency of indigenous agricultural systems, in line with other analyses indicating higher production per unit area on traditional farms compared with conventional agriculture.”
While the article mentions that development of agricultural areas is likely to continue to limit the area available for local food production, it gives hope to those wanting food sufficiency, in the form of data: “These models can significantly aid in site selection and planning in these priority areas for restoration. Given the many possible trajectories of change in climate between now and 2100, after early and mid-century climate projections are developed for Hawai‘i, secular trajectories of change in agricultural suitability would be especially useful for land-use planning.”
Further, in a world facing impending catastrophic climate change, the study affirms the importance of traditional knowledge in facing the future. “For indigenous communities around the world, the restoration of indigenous food systems goes far beyond food security, providing opportunities for strengthening identity, social ties, knowledge transmission and well-being, inseparable from indigenous food,” it states.
“All of these can strengthen social resilience to climate change. In an era of vast land-use and climate changes affecting both the ecological and social foundations of agriculture, our study demonstrates the potential contributions of indigenous agricultural systems for future food production.”
Image courtesy flickr/moonjazz