Hawai’i's agricultural system makes an interesting case study in the debate of food versus fuel in agricultural lands. Hawai’i has a tropical climate suited for growing in all seasons, and multiple crops in one year can be rotated in and out of arable land. The challenge, and it’s sort of a microcosm of what’s happening the world over, is that there’s limited land.With the state already importing 85% of its food and estimates of 3 days worth of reserves should imports be cut off, it would appear the argument against growing our own fuel on ag lands would be strong. But where there is money, there is always a conflict of interest between what’s best for society and what’s best for the companies producing our goods and services.
Headlines in the state once famously read, “No can eat golf balls”, according to Ray Iwamoto, legal counsel at law firm Schlack Ito. Iwamoto has been involved with agricultural land development for many years in Hawai’i, and suggested that many of our laws in Hawai’i date back to, and are more applicable to, the plantation days where slave labor harvested sugar, pineapple and macadamia nuts.
Are biofuels our new golf courses? The military has been investing in biofuels here in Hawai’i, citing climate change and energy independence as national security issues. One large contract has gone to Pacific Biodiesel, a Hawai’i company that has, since 1995, produced biofuels from used vegetable oil. That production, according to Bob King of Pacific Biodiesel, is reaching its limits for production, and the company is now moving into agriculture. King cited that the company is expanding to a large biodiesel plant on the Big Island. Biofuels have a lot of benefits, according to King. Hawai’i burns diesel fuel for 90% of its electricity, making biodiesel production a priority as a drop-in replacement fuel. In addition, there are a lot of co-products that come with biofuel production, including soil amendments and high protein oceanic feedstock, as well as the vast number of jobs that can be created domestically, and the reduction of money flowing out of the state and to oil producing nations.
According to Diane Ley of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Honolulu office), President Obama has directed federal agencies across the board to domestic energy production. His goal is 1/3 of our energy produced domestically by 2030. The U.S. Navy, she cites, is one example. They’ve committed to buying locally produced biofuels made in Hawai’i, where they have a large military presence.
So what of the conflict of food vs. fuel? Ley suggests that the middle ground may be to use some of the lesser productive agricultural lands for algae biofuel production and forestry (biomass energy) projects. These types of projects don’t require much in terms of irrigation, acreage, etc., and can produce decent yields of energy.
Scott Cooney is the developer of a new Triple Bottom Line, Monopoly-esque board game called GBO Hawai’i, and the author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill).