Life takes odd twists and turns, and for Robert Harris it was the twists and turns of his jogging route.
Harris, now 34 and almost two years into his job as executive director for the Sierra Club Hawaii chapter, never expected a career in public policy while he pursued a chemistry degree at the University of Hawaii. But while on a run, Harris was attacked, suffering injuries that required surgery. His assailant was never caught, his grades tanked for a time and he had a lot of time to contemplate his future.
He emerged from that crisis with a new direction for his life: a new major in environmental science and commitment to the environment in his Hawaii home — he is a Kalaheo High School graduate. This orientation ultimately led him to law school and the Sierra Club, initially as a volunteer.
And it’s spilled over into his personal habits. In one corner of his office in the Atherton YWCA building sits the bicycle he rides to appointments in town, after car commutes with his wife from their Kahaluu home.
In recent years, Sierra Club has fought high-profile battles over the Hawaii Superferry and, with the Environmental Protection Agency, over the requirement for upgrades in Oahu’s sewage system and treatment plants. But now he and other Sierra Club leaders look forward to a new focus on promoting diversified agriculture and food production in Hawaii.
Harris proudly cites advocacy for curbside recycling and solar energy among the organization’s achievements. Sierra Club doesn’t like investing all its time in courtroom battles, he said, but sometimes the environmental mission means playing hardball.
"I like to say that we educate, advocate and, only if necessary, agitate," he said.
Question: Hasn’t your focus always been on land use?
Answer: Actually, our priority has been climate change, at the national and local level. But land use and environmental concerns, I think, are two sides of the same coin. If you make a bad land-use decision, then a lot of the environmental problems all extend from that. So traffic problems, safe communities, they’re all tied to good land use planning. Carbon dioxide production: If a lot of people have to hop in cars and drive, it’s all related to where we planned our construction. So yes, it is a serious concern, and we’re trying to make sure that irreversible mistakes aren’t made. But with regards to our No. 1 priority, it’s plainly climate change. And that’s why we’ve been so involved on clean energy issues, trying to make sure clean energy is developed. Also related to that is Hawaii’s food production.
Q: What’s the connection to food production?
A: Food production is tied to land use, and it’s tied to carbon production. In fact, as we delve into food, it’s amazing how many different areas it touches upon. Healthy communities, healthy individuals, jobs and also environmental with regards to carbon dioxide production, how far produce has to travel to get to people’s homes, how many chemicals have to be applied to the food items to ensure they last long enough to get on people’s plates.
Q: Was this a decision made locally to turn your attention toward food security?
A: It is plainly a unique issue with regards to Hawaii. It’s an issue that nationally and internationally has gathered a lot of attention, but Hawaii is way out there with regards to our insecurity with regards to food. Experts seem to be in agreement that we produce about 10 to 15 percent of our food. We’ve seen wild statistics about if ships stop running how quickly we’ll be out of food … we are way out on a limb with regards to the food that we produce. Most other states are much higher with the amount of food that they locally produce, or they’re much closer. So if there’s instability, they’re not going to starve. Hawaii is.
Q: What are the goals of the food security campaign?
A: We’ve targeted trying to be 50 percent self-sufficient as a realistic and possible goal as well as one that is modestly aspirational — the idea that this is something that everybody in Hawaii can kind of come to agreement that yes, at least 50 percent seems a logical goal. That being said, we don’t want it to be restraining and saying that maybe we should shoot for higher, and trying to identify different ways to move in those directions. This needs to be a Marshall Plan for Hawaii. We need to really say that this is going to be one of the highest focuses for the next administration, that this is going to be the target and we need to put a lot of time and focus on it because, again, it crosses into so many different areas. If we’re able to provide local food for schools, for example, that means that students are eating healthier and hopefully learning healthier eating habits, so when they grow to be adults they continue healthy lifestyles. We’re also providing jobs; we’re also preserving portions of Hawaii for agriculture, and that’s something that’s always been a concern, and an interest for us.
Q: What needs to happen to start to lock down more ag land, to grow some of this food?
A: There is no statewide or islandwide plan for how we’re going to provide the food and energy that we need going forward. Because of that, we tend to analyze each of these decisions in a vacuum, where people say we need food, but without the information, it’s impossible to make a rational decision. And I think one of the most important things is to adopt a standard like a 50 percent goal and say that’s what we’re going to work towards, and now we’re going to sit down and figure out how we’re actually going to get to that level, including saying certain land has to be designated for growing food. How do we make sure that happens? The problem with Koa Ridge, Hoopili and now Laie is we talk about growing food, there’s lip service to it, but the actual decisions made are directly counter to those goals, are the exact reverse of what we need to do to achieve more self-sufficiency.
Q: So would the next step be starting something akin to the energy initiative goal of having 70 percent renewable energy by 2030?
A: Yeah, we’ve looked at saying, for example, 20 percent self-sufficiency by 2020, 30 percent self-sufficiency by 2030, and then 50 percent self-sufficiency by 2040. By trying to establish standards and then task governmental agencies with saying, "You’re going to achieve that, and if you don’t achieve it there’s going to be penalties in place." It sort of marshals everyone’s attention in that direction. And then we can have a healthy discussion … and currently there is no dialogue on that. We talk about it, but there is no specific information, there is no data to rely on that says, "Wait, you do need to have these areas protected."
Q: The recent "Eat Local" campaign showed that it’s difficult to find locally produced food in the stores. How will we be able to push up the production of local food in this marketplace?
A: I think there’s a resurgence of interest in this issue, and there is certainly a number of restaurants and a number of farmers doing quite well by growing local food. Statistics show that that industry, of growing diversified agriculture, has been rapidly growing. Our concern is in the next 10 years, we’re making decisions that will impact whether or not that industry has a chance to grow or not. We want to make sure that as people decide to go into diversified agriculture, there is actually land available for them to grow on, and that without that land, forget about it.
You talked about the difficulty of finding food; the difficulty is compounded when you think about the competing needs for agricultural lands. Biofuels, for example: There is going to be biofuels grown in Hawaii. The extent of how much agriculture lands are going to be locked up for that use is directly going to impact how much land we have available for food. The best way I’ve heard it described is that there are probably 30 different uses for agriculture, and a lot of them do pay more than food production. And so we have to incentivize and encourage the use of land for food production to ensure that we are achieving these standards and moving in the preferred direction.
Q: Is the more profitable use biofuels?
A: Actually, right now it’s seed corn. … We’re seeing food farmers having difficulty finding cheap land, because it’s all being used for seed corn. On the short term, most people will say, "Well that’s OK, because it’s better than it being developed." But my fear is that we are losing that next generation of local farmers. When you attend a farmer meeting, it tends to be gray-haired men and women, and you don’t see that next generation there. That’s a genuine concern. We have to make sure we are fostering and growing this fragile industry, and making sure it’s healthy for the future.
Q: Do you think the farm federation is working with Tropical Ag at UH on this?
A: One of the frustrations is that the largest farming advocacy group, the Hawaii Farm Bureau, has as its president somebody who’s actually been advocating for more development, actually testified in favor of developing Koa Ridge, didn’t just take an objective or neutral position but actually said, "No, we prefer development here" — I think much to the shock of some of the members within the Hawaii Farm Bureau.
There has been a new organization, the Hawaii Farmers Union, being created, partially out of that frustration that there hasn’t been a clear and consistent voice for farmers in Hawaii that’s really been advocating in farming’s interest … there’s been a couple of different organizations forming. …
You go back to the 1960 Constitution, that was one of the No. 1 concerns: protecting agriculture land. Unfortunately, over the past 10 or 15 years, we’ve really stumbled and moved in a completely wrong direction. Over the past 50 years, in fact, the state Department of Ag has projected, we’ve lost 50 percent of our prime farm land. It’s clear what we’re doing is wrong, and we have to start moving in a different direction.