Diversifying our economy through agricultural expansion

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When we look back on the year 2020, I hope it will be remembered not just for the COVID-19 pandemic, but also as the time we finally recognized the importance of agriculture and food security for our islands.

It may have taken a global public health crisis to get us here, but the council rose to the challenge and used this year’s budget process to address food security. As chair of the Environmental, Agricultural and Cultural Preservation Committee, I have heard loud and clear from our community the need to take the next step and establish a Maui County Department of Agriculture.

Hawaii is not food secure. According to a report by the state, more than 85 percent of Hawaii’s food is imported, while a University of Hawaii study found the state’s agriculture industry in Hawaii has shrunk by more than two-thirds in the last 40 years.

In addition, we are more than 2,500 miles from the continental United States, where most of our food and other shipments originate. This makes us particularly vulnerable to food shortages, if the shipping process is interrupted by natural disasters and global events such as the pandemic we are currently experiencing.

By creating a Department of Agriculture with defined responsibilities, we can do so much for Maui County:

• Develop a sustainable regional agricultural system.

• Reduce the risk of food shortages.

• Strengthen resiliency and economic diversification through research and economic growth in the agricultural sector.

• Boost resident health through access to more locally grown produce.

• Promote ecosystem health through natural-resource regeneration and protection.

I expect that my proposal for the creation of a Department of Agriculture will be heard in the Governance, Ethics and Transparency Committee on June 23, when other charter amendments are reviewed. If agreed upon by the committee, the charter amendment will be recommended for adoption by the council, which would allow the electorate the final choice on Nov. 3. My hope is that this much needed department will be overwhelmingly supported by testifiers, my colleagues and, ultimately, voters at the general election.

This endeavor follows the council appropriating several million dollars for agriculturally based programs in the county’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget, which takes effect July 1. As stated in the Economic Development and Budget Committee’s report recommending passage of the budget, the council has “addressed the need for economic diversification beyond tourism, with an increased focus on agriculture, food security and food sustainability through, for example, $2.5 million for the Maui Economic Opportunity agricultural micro grants program for farmers, a grant of $75,000 to Ohana Garden Project for food security and a grant of $65,000 to West Maui KEAC Family Farming Program.”

Among the numerous other organizations and programs supported in the budget are Maui County Farm Bureau, Hawai’i Farmers Union United, Common Ground Collective, Lana’i Agricultural Park and Moloka’i Diversified Agriculture Program.

My committee will add to the momentum by fostering discussion and introducing legislation for important agricultural lands, food security and “circular economies.” As stated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “a circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems.”

With challenges such as inexpensive foreign labor, lack of local farmworkers and the country’s highest land costs, Hawaii’s local agriculture industry has been on a long pattern of decline. Regardless, the history of Maui County is deeply rooted in agriculture, and with community support we can shift our reliance on large-scale tourism to opportunities that diversify our economy through a renewed focus on agricultural expansion.

* Shane M. Sinenci is chair of the council’s Environmental, Agricultural and Cultural Preservation Committee. He holds the council seat for the East Maui residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters.

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