Monday, November 30, 2015         


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Ag research should be a top priority


In the Pacific region, food security has long been a concern of international organizations, in particular the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has fostered cooperation in food production and supply among its member nations since 1968.

More recently it's become a topic within newer groups, such as the various Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conferences established during the Clinton administration.

The APEC fact sheet on food security describes its approach to the issue as APEC "promoting productivity and growth in the agricultural sector, encouraging the development and adoption of new agricultural technologies and enabling regional food trade."

However, the subject of food as a focus of international economic bridge-building was overwhelmed in the discussions on driving economic growth during APEC week in Honolulu over the past week.

Although that's not surprising in the context of nations still struggling with recession-driven problems, it deserves far more attention from policymakers at the national and local level than its second-tier ranking might suggest.

What's encouraging is that APEC is increasing its attention to this issue by establishing the Policy Partnership on Food Security, giving the private sector an institutionalized role in discussions going forward.

Among the list of events hosted by the private sector on Saturday, Cargill, the international food producer and marketer, put together a food-security panel, inviting trade ministers from New Zealand, Russia, Indonesia, Canada and Japan.

Earlier on, Hawaii participants brought the issue front and center on Wednesday during the Asia-Pacific Business Symposium.

Daniel W. Piccuta, foreign policy adviser to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, joined other panelists in arguing for the importance of food security in the reduction of poverty levels -- and the political instability that plagues hungry nations.

Another panelist was Catherine Woteki, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics. Woteki, who also spoke last week with the Star-Advertiser's editorial board, made a persuasive case for protecting funding for government research.

While private companies play a role in research to advance products needed by the agricultural industries, the government and land-grant institutions like the University of Hawaii are the most essential players in furthering the larger issues, such as technology to boost farm productivity and combat agricultural pests and diseases, Woteki said.

For example, USDA has underwritten numerous UH studies and programs, including everything from creating a detection program aimed at huanglongbing, a disease threatening the citrus industry worldwide.

In the current landscape littered with federal funding cuts, Hawaii's congressional delegation must continue its advocacy for research that can strengthen agriculture in-state and throughout the Pacific.

Finally, the symposium also gave a platform for Suzanne Case, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, to underscore an important point: Food production cannot be secure without abundant water, and threats to the state's watershed -- such as invasive species that destroy native foliage that entraps rainwater -- compel Hawaii to become more vigilant against pests at port inspections.

These operations would be more effective and efficient by establishing more joint federal-state inspection programs throughout the islands.

If nothing else, the drumbeat for food security is beginning to grow a little louder as APEC comes to a close.

The core message -- that a healthy agricultural industry is a boon to trade and essential to a healthy planet overall -- bears repetition and must guide policy throughout the Pacific. It should resonate in Hawaii as deeply as anywhere.

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