From Grassroot Institute, September 16, 2016
When it comes to spurring economic growth in Hawaii, you can find general agreement that it's important to encourage successful industries in our state. And there's little partisan disagreement over the idea that we should foster and expand agriculture. But do people really know where our strengths lie in the agriculture sector?
A new report from Dr. Paul Brewbaker and the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association reveals some fascinating data about the history and future of Hawaii agriculture. It shows that one of the most promising avenues may be somewhat unexpected. It's not pineapple or sugar cane, but seeds.
Hawaii's modern seed industry is nearly 50 years old, and it now represents the largest single agriculture activity in the state. Though it fell slightly from its high of $240 million in 2010-2012 to $150 million in 2016, the influence of the seed industry in Hawaii is significant. It's estimated that it produces approximately $323 million in total economic impact per year. That means that Kauai, Oahu, and Maui/Molokai each saw a more than $100 million in GDP from the seed industry alone.
And the seed industry isn't the only one to impress. Aquaculture has been growing and just surpassed livestock as the second largest agriculture activity in the state. Both these industries have shown stability and promise. Seed in particular is a biotech industry that attracts skilled workers and results in a beneficial ratio of economic value-added per job. And Hawaii's aquaculture resources have the potential of making us a global center for technology-infused agriculture. By promoting existing technology-based industries, we may see the benefit of advances in one sector spilling over to help revive livestock and foster diversified agriculture.
However, all of agriculture can be held back by regulation, politics, and policies that favor new industries over established ones--regardless of past success.
This is the problem when government gets involved in choosing which industries to promote via tax breaks and incentives. The seed industry and aquaculture are clearly areas the state should prioritize given their growth potentials and unlimited global markets. Everything should be done to unleash the power of the free market to develop this new economic center.
In part, that means adopting policies that will encourage growth in these sectors. It also means cutting red tape and "getting the government out of the way." Moreover, in recent years, Hawaii's farmers are increasingly the subject of political activism. From anti-GMO activists to land use and taxation issues, the threats to agriculture are constant and distracting.
What is needed is strong political leadership. Governor Ige has indicated that he wants to see an agricultural boom in our state. This is the perfect time for him to follow through. It isn't the role of government to decide which agriculture sectors are going to thrive. Instead, we should make it possible for the free market to raise our most successful industries to greater heights. If we want agriculture to grow, our political leadership must courageously challenge the threats of growing federal and state regulation as well as ideological and uninformed activism.
E hana kakou (Let's work together!),
Keli'i Akina, Ph.D.