Could Hawaii feed itself if it had to?

Photo: David Croxford

Suppose the containerships that bring food to Hawaii stopped coming. It’s an improbable dystopian fantasy, for sure. But what if?

There’s no hard data on precisely how much food Hawaii imports, but estimates range from about 80 to 90 percent. If we were cut off, do we have the capacity to feed all 1.4 million* of us? At least in theory?

We put the question to Bruce Mathews, interim dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management at UH Hilo.

“Theoretically, yes,” Mathews says. “But it would be really challenging.”

To feed one person a diet made up of 30 percent animal products, it takes about 16,000 square feet of land in farm production—roughly three NBA basketball courts. Hawaii has more than enough potentially farmable land to meet that requirement, Mathews says, although we’re currently at about 3,700 square feet per capita, and much of that is planted in seed, coffee and other nutritionally unimportant crops.

Putting that potential farmland to use would be a monumental undertaking, one requiring a complete reinvention of the agricultural system. “There would be extreme food stress until we figured it out,” he says.

Nutrient management, for starters, would become a critical issue, as the same boats that stopped bringing the food would stop bringing the fertilizer, as well. The nutrient-rich valleys and wetlands where the ancient Hawaiians farmed would probably need to be put back into food production. We would also have to radically rethink the way we handle human and household organic waste. In other words, everybody would need to compost, and our poop would have to go back into the fields to help grow more food.

The nature of our diets would fundamentally change. Root crops, which don’t require imported nitrogen and phosphorus, would take off. Sweet potato, cassava, kalo would be in, while corn and everything made with wheat would be out. Locally grown rice would probably make a big comeback. The good news for carnivores is that pork, chicken and grass-fed beef could be important sources of protein.  

Some anthropologists who have thought about this question have said that if an island culture isn’t producing 70 percent of its own carbohydrates at the time it’s cut off from outside food shipments, its prospects for survival are dim. But Mathews is more optimistic. He thinks Hawaii might be in a better position than most island cultures because it has large herds of cattle that could be employed as emergency rations. “We would probably be eating a lot of livestock until we got our cropping system going,” he says.

In any case, society would undergo a radical transformation, with most of us becoming, out of necessity, farm laborers. Whether or not democracy would survive such a shift isn’t certain. “We might have to bring back the old Hawaiian Kingdom to have the ruling authority to pull it off,” Mathews speculates.

*We’re not counting tourists. If the food stops coming, we assume they’ve stopped coming too.