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Getting Protein in Hawai'i: What's for Dinner?

Written by Neil Logan on 28 December 2010.

Poultry are far more efficient at converting their food into protein for human consumption compared with cattle.
Poultry are far more efficient at converting their food into protein for human consumption compared with cattle.
Before Polynesians arrived in Hawai’i there were no amphibians, reptiles, or freshwater fish, and only two mammals, the ancient Hawaiian monk seal and the small Hawaiian Hoary Bat (Ope’ape’a). Early Polynesian settlers brought key plants and animals with them and after their arrival well over a thousand years ago these new species gradually but significantly changed the native Hawaiian environment. Though Hawai’i still provided the seafood protein that the Polynesians had depended on in the Marquesas and Society Islands, the Polynesians introduced protein sources that included taro, chickens, dogs and pigs.

The relationship of the nutritional quality and quantity of the available feed, versus stocking rates, regulates the ecological and economic viability of large grazing animals in a natural system. After much of the native Hawaiian forest and open-land vegetation was destroyed by over-cutting and over-grazing through the mid-1800’s, its remnant topsoil was converted to support grassland mono-crops for cattle. But Hawaii’s young soils are generally nutritionally poor and very porous especially in wetter areas. This means the nutrients are quickly washed away with frequent heavy rains. Over time erosion carried the fertile topsoil to the coastal lands and the sea. It was only a matter of time before Hawai‘i had reached its beef carrying capacity.

Recognizing the nutritional limits of island resources, beef producing ranches like Parker Ranch formerly had a system of rotational grazing that brought the cattle down to coastal feedlots such as in Puako to fatten cattle on kiawe pods before shipping them off to market. However, this is no longer economically viable. In his update to the Hawaii Beef Industry, Jim Greenwell stated:

"Beef production is not the most lucrative agricultural use for land and many cattle operations in recent years have been marginal at best." (http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/awg/downloads/rp_HAWAII_CATTLEMEN_AWG_paper_072503.pdf)

An article about the history of the Princeville Ranch revealed:

“Shipping cattle to be finished on the mainland is a common practice in Hawaii. Most ranches don’t have enough or the right type of grass for finishing. Carrying capacity is the issue.” (http://swimhanaleibay.com/ranchhistory.aspx)


Cattle have had a devastating effect on native Hawaiian forest and watershed function.
Cattle have had a devastating effect on native Hawaiian forest and watershed function.
Now, with approximately 180,000 people on Hawai’i Island alone (and doubling every half century), and  less than a million acres of potentially useful pasture land, how do we provide the minimal human protein requirement of almost 2 oz/person/day or roughly 7,400,000 lbs for the whole population per year? The carrying capacity of the land is not the only issue. Don’t forget water: 14,160 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of beef protein.

But here’s the bigger picture. Let’s  consider the efficiency of how animals convert their food into protein for human consumption. The biological conversion ratios of vegetable protein to meat protein for different animals are as follows: 2:1 for fish and chickens; 3:1 for pigs, sheep, goats; 6:1 for cows. This means that cows require 3 times as much vegetable protein as fish and chickens to make useful animal protein for human consumption.

Sounding bleak? Never fear, for we in Hawaii are fortunate to have a model for carrying capacity that is in harmony with the resource limitations of island living: it’s called ahupuaʻa. This traditional Hawaiian land management system incorporated the stewardship of resources as they occur naturally from mountain to ocean, and provided for their fair distribution to all the human tenants of the ahupua‘a.  Makai and coastal resources are fed by mauka perennial food forests and aquaculture systems. This created a scenario of zero waste, maximum soil conservation and biodiversity.

A healthier, more peaceful and sane future with an even greater population will require us to re-adopt much of the diet of our Hawaiian ancestors. This means we will flip today’s American dietary protein preference consisting of 90% meat and 10% vegetables and begin to derive more of our protein directly from vegetable and aquatic sources that conserve and recycle water and nutrients. The future of Hawai‘i’s food source is not in genetically modified monocrops that depend on more petrol-based additives, nor in the Black Angus of cattle country. Rather, it is in the multi-stratum agroforests that rain fruits, starches and leafy vegetables onto a steamy and vibrant forest floor, and send fresh water streams makai into ponds teaming with fish.

Neil Logan is an ethnobotanist and permaculture designer based in Hawi, North Kohala.