Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How Much Land Do We Need To Be Food Self-Sufficient?

Given the recent and on-going conversations on food “self-sufficiency” and “sustainability,” in trying to answer the above question, I first looked to existing State plans to see the estimates and computations noted there.

To my surprise, there is no detail in the Hawaii 2050 Plan (the State’s most recent long-range planning document) that quantifies how much land is needed for food self-sufficiency.

While it does use “happy words” (as I describe its text) generalizing that we need to do this or that; however, no roadmap to get there or measures of success are included.

I then did an internet investigation into the matter to see if ‘rules of thumb’ or other standards could apply.  The evidence is variable.

As noted by the graphic used here, some suggest, at a self-subsistence level, a family of four can live off of approximately 2-acres of land.

Extend that to the Hawai‘i’s existing defacto population of about 1.5-million people, we need about 750,000-acres of land to feed everyone.  (Of course, there are economies of scale when moving from individual family subsistence production to commercial scale production, so this number is inflated.)

(By the way, de facto population is defined as the number of persons physically present in an area, regardless of military status or usual place of residence.  It includes visitors present but excludes residents temporarily absent, both calculated as an average daily census.)

The 750K acres for 1.5M people conflicts with a report on feeding the people in the city of Detroit.  In that report, Detroit’s 5.4-million people would require only 164,250-acres to feed everyone there, per year.

Extrapolating that to Hawai‘i’s 1.5-million de facto population that means, under the Detroit analysis, Hawai‘i only needs about 45,625-acres of farmland to feed the State.  Hmmm.

Another study on Costa Rica “Quantifying Sustainable Development: The Future of Tropical Economies” suggests that it takes about 495,000-acres of land to feed 1.2- to 1.6-million people.

Of course, all of these estimates do not include the significant dietary supplement we are able to use in Hawai‘i by harvesting seafood from the surrounding ocean.

Nor does it include opportunities that concentrated farming offer, like aquaponics, hydroponics, intensive grazing, etc.

So, while we talk about food “self-sufficiency” and “sustainability” what are we doing about it?

Lately, I think the only ‘action’ has been talk – folks go to a meeting, talk, then they prepare a plan.  They meet again, and talk some more.  Then everyone goes away satisfied that they are ‘doing’ something (until the next happy words meeting.)

Presently, the State designates about 1.9-million acres as “Agriculture.” The USDA reports Hawai‘i’s total farm acreage is 1.1-million acres of land.

And, of course, you can farm lands that are not designated ‘agriculture;’ meaning, a lot more land is available for food production from lands under other land use classifications (including everyone’s own backyard.)
Given that, should we all feel comfortable there will be food for us in the future?

Not quite.

I think it is about time we have a frank discussion about what our needs are and start to take the necessary steps to ultimately realize our goal of food self-sufficiency and sustainability.

The world is changing in lots of ways - we cannot blindly go along with business as usual (with just happy words) in addressing this important and critical need.

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