What Hurricanes Warn Us About the Future of Food
Whether from floods or fires or climate change-induced natural disasters, when roads collapse and interstate commerce grinds to a halt, we all find ourselves vulnerably dependent on the food at hand.
By Paula Daniels
What kind of wine goes with a hurricane? Not one that should be chilled, because the power would likely go out. That’s what my sister thought as she pushed her shopping cart through the aisles of an Oahu grocery store as Hurricane Lane approached. The shelves for Gatorade and bottled water were already empty. There were a few cans of Campbell’s Cream of Celery soup left, but otherwise all the canned goods were plucked clean — especially the SPAM, which went fast, and first.
Hawai’i has the largest per capita consumption of SPAM in the U.S. (a culinary taste acquired during World War II when Hawai’i was under martial law) and it was flying off the shelves when Governor David Ige gave the warning to shelter in place for 14 days as the hurricane barreled toward Hawai’i.
His emergency proclamation included an order that all commercial harbors be closed and that all cargo ships vacate the ports. “[T]he harbors are our lifeline to essentials such as food and products,” said Governor Ige. “We must protect the harbors and piers so that shipping operations can resume once the storm has passed.”
For over a century Hawai’i has been importing 85–90 percent of its food, due to the complete usurpation of the once-sovereign country by sugar barons eager to maximize industrial production of their crop. There is no longer any sugar production in Hawai’i, but its agricultural lands are now occupied by another industry: the vacation industrial complex. Land is more valuable as a resort, or an expensive vacation home, or housing for the workers supporting the tourist industry, than it ever could be for agriculture, if the profit model for farming remains the norm. Countless tech and entertainment celebrities have vacation estates of several hundred acres that sit empty for the most part, while the locals tend to the grounds. Not much of the islands’ famously fertile soil is used to grow food for the 1.25 million who make their home in Hawai’i, or for the eight million tourists who visit every year. Hundreds of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land are slated for development instead.
Governor Ige has declared a goal of doubling the current level of local food production by 2030. The local production of fruits, greens, dairy, nuts, and coffee is estimated to be at around 10 percent right now, with not enough variety to sustain a modern, healthy diet. It has often been said that if the cargo ships stopped coming to Hawai’i, the stores would be out of food in a week. That proved true when Hurricane Lane approached; not long after the cargo ships were ordered away from Hawai’i, the stores were just about out of food. Not much was left by the time my sister went shopping, wanting to first put tarp around her windows, bring in the outdoor furniture, and tie down everything else.
I’m from Hawai’I, but, I’ve lived in Los Angeles for decades. My local disaster experience is with earthquakes and wildfires. My memories of the 1994 Northridge earthquake are still vivid; I remember the loss of water and power in every building in the neighborhood for several days after. Last year we evacuated due to a threatening wildfire, exacerbated by unprecedented 80 mph winds.
Whether from floods or fires — or any of the other natural disasters that are accelerating and intensifying with the rapid warming of our climate — when roads collapse or are closed, when interstate commerce grinds to a halt, we all find ourselves vulnerably dependent on the food at hand. Hawai’i is an island state, but any region could find itself similarly isolated by disaster. None of our country’s regions have much local food, even in California. Most food is shipped in or out, anywhere around the world, available at all times and in all seasons, in our on-demand global marketplace.
And more disasters are coming. California’s Governor Jerry Brown recently issued a Climate Assessment Report, warning of the “apocalyptic threat of irreversible climate change.” On our warming planet, hurricanes are hurtling in a more northerly direction than they ever did before — a worry that the eastern and southern states share with the 50th.
But greater regional self-sufficiency is possible. Hawai’i used to be as dependent on energy imports as it is on food imports, but it set a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045. Thanks to aggressive installation of solar panels and wind turbines, Hawai’i is currently about 25 percent of the way to energy self-sufficiency. But its local food goals? Not so much.
Hurricane Lane could serve as a wake-up call on the need for regionalizing local food production. The state could create a renewable agriculture portfolio as eagerly as it did a renewable energy portfolio. Then, when the SPAM runs out, Hawai’i could have a reasonable amount of its own local food on hand. Every region used to be able to locally support its population before the industrialization of its food system; Hawai’i was no different.
Across the U.S., more than 200 food policy councils are working to revitalize regional food systems. Iowa is an example. It doesn’t seem that Iowa and Hawai’i have much in common except for the letters in their names, but the local food problem is similar. In Iowa, most fertile land is devoted to the industrialized production of corn, the state’s signature agricultural export. The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) points out that the state imports more than 90 percent of its food, and that Iowa is losing 25 acres of farmland each day to development. Sound familiar? In response, SILT is creating land trusts and agriculture conservation easements that commit the land to nature-friendly food production, providing favorable leases to farmers to avoid a debt burden. And, they are working with city planners and private developers to include small farms in land-use planning.
Hawai’i’s local food goal could be achieved with a similarly focused effort: supporting increased and accelerated investment in distributed agricultural land trusts and easements, and doubling down on its economic development of a sturdy chain of good jobs in local food and farming. Most cities have incentivized set asides for affordable housing; what if there were also set asides for affordable farming? Just think of how much more good food could be grown if a well-designed corner of the lush resorts (Disney’s Aulani, for example) and the enormous vacation estates in Hawai’i (Mark Zuckerberg’s Kauai home is estimated to be over 700 acres) were devoted to the production of healthy food.
In the meantime, what food can an island resident buy that would survive at room temperature in a house about to be battered by a major hurricane? My sister bought peanut butter, crackers, cheeses, chips, trail mix, hummus, carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, corn. All imports. The wine choice? A light summery pinot noir from Oregon. It went well with the post-hurricane party she and her friends had a few days later, feeling relieved and lucky that the major hurricane weakened and whirled away.
Paula Daniels was Senior Advisor on Food Policy to Mayor Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, and is co-founder of the national Center for Good Food Purchasing. She is a registered Native Hawai’ian.