Why is sustainable agriculture especially relevant for Japan and Hawaiʻi?

By Caroline Julian-Freitas

Hawaiʻi and Japan are nearly 4,000 miles away from each other and have the vast Pacific Ocean separating them. Despite the geographic distance between these two groups of islands, there are many similarities, specifically in issues surrounding sustainable agriculture.

The commonalities were discussed last July during the Hawaiʻi-Japan Sister State and Sister City Summit, convened in Honolulu by the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and the Japan-America Society of Hawaii. The summit’s theme was “The Ties that Bind,” and it was attended by Hawaiʻi’s state officials and county mayors, including Gov. Josh Green, and mayors and governors of the six prefectures and 16 cities and towns from Japan. In addition, leaders from Hawaiʻi and Japan in the fields of sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy, business and economic development, sustainable tourism, and education discussed possibilities for future collaboration.

During one panel devoted entirely to sustainable and profitable agriculture, an intriguing question was asked: “Why is sustainable agriculture especially relevant for Japan and Hawaiʻi?” Answering this question requires an understanding of the important similarities between agriculture in Japan and in Hawaiʻi.

The average size of farms in Hawaiʻi and Japan are small in comparison to other areas with more land mass. The average size of a farm in the continental United States is 445 acres, compared to 10.2 acres in Japan and 155 acres in Hawaiʻi. Although Hawaiʻi’s average farm size is much larger than Japan’s, about 66% of Hawaiʻi farms are between 1 and 9 acres, and 23% are between 10 and 49 acres.

Both areas also face the challenge of an ageing workforce. In 2015 the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) found that those primarily engaged in agriculture in Japan were 65 years or older. According to Hawaiʻi’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, the average age of a farmer in Hawaiʻi is 60.

As a result of an aging workforce and competition with other industries for workers, the farm labor supply is decreasing. The number of Japanese farmers has been decreasing sharply. The 2020 Census of Agriculture and Forestry in Japan reported that the country had 1.52 million agricultural workers. In 2015, the number of agricultural workers was 1.97 million, representing a 20% decline in five years. The workforce loss is even more stark when compared with the Japan’s farm workforce in the past, in 1985 it stood at 5.42 million.

Hawaiʻi’s agricultural sector also faces worker shortages. “The lack of farm labor has consistently been one of the top three challenges in Hawaiʻi agriculture,” said Jesse Cooke, vice president of investments & analytics at Ulupono Initiative. “It is tough for farmers to compete with other industries when it comes to salaries.”

According to the USDA, gross wages for Hawaiʻi’s farm field workers was $14.30 per hour in January 2018 and $18.40 per hour in January 2023, almost a 30% increase. Even with that increase, Hawaiʻi farmers are still having substantial problems finding farm labor.

Both Hawaiʻi and Japan also produce little to no row crops (corn, wheat, soybean, etc.).  According to World-Grain.com, “Although it is self-sufficient in rice production, Japan imports 90% of its wheat needs, 80% of its flour and 100% of its corn.” Hawaiʻi’s production of row crops for local consumption or as ingredients for local livestock operations is almost non-existent.

Because livestock feed is made from row crops, the livestock industries in both Japan and Hawaiʻi have to deal with significantly higher imported livestock feed costs.

“The cost of feed is one of the primary reasons why Hawaiʻi’s livestock sectors are struggling,” Cooke said. “Hawaiʻi’s strongest livestock industry is cattle. This livestock sector survives because it minimizes its use of imported feed and depends on grass grazing. However, this means Hawaiʻi’s beef industry is highly sensitive to drought, which can significantly decrease grass production.”

Because of their geographic isolation, being sustainable and self-reliant is especially important for both Japan and Hawaiʻi. Both depend on food imports, especially from North America, for the majority of their populations’ caloric needs.  According to a 2023 International Agricultural Trade Report, as Japan’s top agricultural supplier, the United States exported $14.6 billion of agricultural products in 2022. That roughly translated to 23% of Japan’s caloric needs. Similarly, most of Hawaiʻi’s food imports are from the U.S. mainland.

Geographic isolation, low food production, and dependence on food imports make it challenging to achieve food security, improve resilience, or manage supply chain disruptions like those experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Japan and Hawaiʻi, these disruptions have the potential to become emergencies.

The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization defines food self-sufficiency as “the extent to which a country can satisfy its food needs from its own domestic production.” The food self-sufficiency rate of certain food items is calculated by dividing the amount of domestic production by supplies needed for domestic consumption. According to MAFF, Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate on a calorie basis was 38% in 2021. In 2018, MAFF calculated the calorie-based food self-sufficiency rate for other countries including the United States at 132%, Canada at 266%, and France at 125 %. Referring to this estimate, MAFF has repeatedly expressed its concern about Japan’s low food self-sufficiency rate.

With Hawaiʻi importing an estimated 80–90% of its food, its leaders need to recognize the risk to Hawaiʻi’s residents when it comes to food supply chain disruptions. “Unlike the other 49 states, Hawaiʻi’s geographic isolation creates so much food security risk for Hawaiʻi’s residents that Hawaiʻi state government support of local food production should not be viewed as subsidizing an industry, but as supporting a public safety tool such as a police department or fire department,” Cooke explained.

The Japanese government has long recognized the security risk that is present because Japan is not food self-sufficient. “Japan has reduced support for agriculture in recent decades, but even so, 41% of farmers’ revenue still comes from government subsidies, more than double the average of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group of wealthy nations,” according to an article by Daniel Leussink, titled “Insight: On Japan’s farms, a weakening yen adds to slow-burning discontent.”  Meanwhile, according to Global Trade Magazine, the U.S. subsidizes its agriculture industry by only 12%.

While there are of course more shared connections and challenges relating to sustainable agriculture between Japan and Hawaiʻi, the few discussed here illustrate the value of innovative collaboration.  For instance, tech and machinery developed for massive mainland farms is often not the right size for Hawaiʻi farms. During the 2023 Hawaii legislative session, a proposed bill would allow farmers to utilize farming equipment from Japan, with specific emphasis on small tractors.

With the bonds strengthened and fruitful discussions at the “Ties that Bind” summit, the shared challenges in the area of sustainable agriculture will provide a positive path forward towards innovative collaboration for present and future generations.