Can high-tech farming solve Hawaii’s food crisis?

It’s a sobering challenge: Reduce Hawaii’s precarious dependence on food imports by ramping up local crop production to fill the plates of more than 1.4 million residents, as well as millions of tourists who visit the islands each year, amid projections of intensifying drought, water scarcity and competition for farmable land.

One route to getting there calls for crops to be grown on asphalt and in warehouses, either completely indoors or in advanced greenhouses. In Hawaii, this new era of agriculture is already underway — and starting to grow.

In a 40-foot shipping container off Farrington Highway in Waipahu, Bee’s Greens Co. grows butterhead and romaine lettuce under LED bulbs. Plants are stacked on top of each other in this vertical hydroponic system, achieving the same yields as a 1.5-acre conventional farm.

On Lanai, a 2-acre, high-tech greenhouse farm by tech entrepreneur Larry Ellison’s Sensei Ag produced 35,000 pounds of produce in less than three months last year. In 2021, the company expects to harvest 500,000 pounds of food for statewide consumption, including Swiss chard, basil, tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplant, without a pinch of soil.

And by mid-2022, the Florida-based indoor farming company Kalera plans to open a 15,000-square-foot facility, roughly the size of an Olympic swimming pool, in Ko Olina in West Oahu. The company says that the leafy greens grower’s partially automated vertical farm would be Hawaii’s largest, producing several million heads of lettuce per year.  

The University of Hawaii Manoa’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences has identified agriculture systems that use technology to modify the natural environment to boost crop yields as a priority area for future curriculum expansion, according to Theodore Radovich, a professor of sustainable farming systems.

By eliminating seasonality, pest problems, and bouts of bad weather, ag-tech advocates say this burgeoning sector is key to helping Hawaii improve its food sovereignty at a time when climate change is expected to give rise to exceedingly volatile weather that threatens to disrupt crop production and food supply chains.

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