Can We Feed Ourselves? Ulupono Initiative Investigates Hawaii Food Production with Systems Thinking
Among his goals for Hawaii, Governor David Ige hopes to double locally produced food. Like government leaders around the world, Ige is eyeing economic, environmental, and health
benefits – better markets for local producers, less shipping and distribution, and greater access to fresh, rather than processed, products.
Doubling food production within the confines of any geopolitical border is a challenge. Hawaii’s particular constraints include mountainous island counties separated by
stretches of Pacific Ocean. “Hawaii has a great climate but farming is limited to valleys,” says Kyle Datta, General Partner, Ulupono Initiative. “When plantations went
into decline, so did the agricultural infrastructure they left behind. Agriculture also requires a lot of water and labor. Even with technology, supplies of both are
Applying Systems Thinking
Ulupono Initiative, an impact investment firm dedicated to improving the quality of life for Hawaii residents, is taking a Systems Thinking approach to the state’s
agricultural ambitions. “Everyone at Ulupono is trained in Systems Thinking,” says Datta. “We’re deeply immersed in the concepts.”
When you Google ‘systems thinking’, isee systems always comes up first
Datta and his colleagues knew that even before any model was built, they would need to collect data to drive simulations. “We had built a systems map based on work done by
Seeds of Change but couldn’t quantify anything,” says Datta. “The state Department of Agriculture had geographic information system (GIS) and other data, but it took about
five years and some commissioned studies to collect propriety datasets of market, consumer, resource, and economic information.”
With data in hand, Datta sought out the model building skills Ulupono needed but lacked. To get the systems model-building help needed to examine the complexities of Hawaii’s
animal and vegetable food production, understand constraints better, and identify leverage points, Ulupono turned to isee systems. “When you Google ‘systems thinking’,
isee systems always comes up first,” says Datta.
The model was built on-time and on-budget and led to discoveries that have impacted our initiative’s strategic direction
Datta found that Ulupono and isee systems shared a similar design-test-validate approach to Systems Thinking and model building. “The engagement felt like a peer-to-peer
dialog. Karim Chichakly from isee systems had to come up to speed on the farm-to-plate chains for vegetables, fruit, and animal products and he brought us up the model
design curve – how do we avoid unnecessary loops and avoid the danger of digging too far down. Karim built a model that identifies system constraints and leverage points
and helps us discover how to get from A to B.”
Working together, Ulupono Initiative staff and Karim built a model that utilized collected data to yield several critical insights. “It was a great experience,” says
Datta. “The model was built on-time and on-budget and led to discoveries that have impacted our initiative’s strategic direction.”
One way to double the amount of food produced in Hawaii could be to double the amount of agriculture in Hawaii. The model quickly pointed out it wouldn’t be that simple.
Conventional agricultural methods are not likely to double production. “Growers need to apply precise, technical approaches to avoid the system’s fundamental constraints,”
says Datta. “For example, growing lettuce in greenhouses requires more capital, but avoids land and water constraints. A ranch that actively manages grazing will yield
more protein than one that practices traditional foraging.”
The model helped us realize that we can’t be ideological in our decision making
The model also pointed out areas where agricultural goals compete. For example, should animal feed be imported to free up limited valley acreage for vegetable crops, or
grown locally to reduce shipping costs and build that portion of the local agricultural market? “The model helped us realize that we can’t be ideological in our decision
making,” says Datta. “We have to practically balance inputs to get increases.”
Along with natural land and water resources, governmental regulations also present systemic constraints. The federal Food Safety and Modernization Act went into effect in
April 2017 and aims to prevent rather than correct food contamination. “If the Act’s requirements take out half of our farmers, we’ll have a significant loss in food
production,” says Datta. “But losses really depend on who replaces the growers that the Act impacts. Replacement by larger, lower cost growers would hit the system less
than replacement by smaller, higher price growers.”
Increasing or decreasing the amount of time it takes to get a permit makes a big difference in the amount of food produced
Hawaii growers are required to attain permits and that process can take years. The permit barrier to new growers constrains the state’s agricultural capacity.
“The model shows us that increasing or decreasing the amount of time it takes to get a permit makes a big difference in the amount of food produced,” says Datta.
Government limits on immigrant labor also impact agricultural capacity. “Hawaii depends on immigrant labor,” says Datta. “If the number of immigrants allowed
to work here is reduced, the state will not be able to meet its goals, even when new technology is applied.”
Ulupono Initiative plans to use modelling insights to work with state government officials. “We’ll also use the model in our specific conversations with growers,”
said Datta. “It will help us talk about what can be done to move toward goals, what should be done, and what won’t work.”
The model isee systems created and the questions we’re asking apply to just about any agricultural system in a defined geography
“Systems Thinking models are really good for gaining a shared point of view,” says Datta. “We built the model first and foremost to inform ourselves but now that
the core code is in place, we have a tool that will help others with the same desire to discover Hawaii’s agricultural system’s leverage points and constraints.”
“The model isee systems created and the questions we’re asking apply to just about any agricultural system in a defined geography,” says Datta. “People everywhere
are asking ‘Can we feed ourselves? What will it cost? Will people buy what is produced? At what price?’ Those questions are the same everywhere.”
About Ulupono Initiative: Ulupono Initiative is a Hawaii-focused impact investing firm that uses for-profit, non-profit and social investments to improve the quality
of life for island residents in four areas: locally produced food, clean, renewable energy, and waste and water management.
To learn more about Ulupono Initiative, visit www.ulupono.com.