Sustainable Agriculture: Food for Today and Tomorrow

Compost teas in the laboratory

Photo provided by Ted Radovich

Former TPSS Ph.D. graduate student Archana Pant evaluates the chemical properties of compost teas in the laboratory.

The goal of sustainable agriculture is to help farmers produce food and profits today while effectively managing the resources needed to also feed future generations. Sustainable farming encompasses tools and approaches to build soil organic matter, prevent erosion, encourage the growth of beneficial insects and microbes, and “close the cycle” by using locally generated animal and plant waste products to enhance plant nutrition and soil fertility.

Organic agriculture incorporates many of these sustainable practices, relying on ecological interactions among plants, animals, and microorganisms, especially in soil, to replace petroleum-based fertilizers and most pesticides. Driven by ten years of double-digit increases in consumer demand, organic crop production has expanded dramatically. To be certified organic, farmers must meet standards relating to how food is grown, stored, processed, packaged and shipped. But when a Hawai‘i consumer reaches for organic bananas imported from Equador—8500 miles away—it’s worth asking “Is this sustainable?”

Accompanied by TPSS extension specialist Ted Radovich (back row, middle, pink shirt), high school students from Kamehameha Schools’ Na Pua Noe‘au program prepare to plant bananas on organic plots at the Waimānalo experiment station. Photo provided by Ted Radovich

The best way to make organic produce a sustainable choice for Hawai‘i shoppers is to grow and market it here. Since 2000, the number of certified organic farms in Hawai‘i has roughly doubled, to about 200 today, and acreage certified for organic agriculture has increased more than 10-fold, accounting for 8 percent of the Hawai‘i land planted in crops in 2008. UH Mānoa’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences (TPSS) conducts research, instruction, and extension (outreach) to help increase sustainable food production here in the islands and throughout the tropics. Whether you’re a commercial grower, a home gardener, or a prospective student contemplating a career in a burgeoning green industry, TPSS can help you grow food while minimizing synthetic inputs and enriching soil biodiversity.

UH Mānoa students can explore organic and other models of sustainable agriculture in the classroom, on campus, and in the community. Through lectures, labs, and field visits to farms and markets, a popular elective in Organic Food Crop Production (TPSS 220) introduces TPSS majors and non-majors to the theory and practice of growing certified organic food. Additional classes in the TPSS curriculum—including offerings in soil science, weed science, horticulture, plant physiology, plant breeding and genetics, and plant nutrition—contribute to an integrated understanding of farm ecology. Internships create opportunities for applied learning and firsthand experience. And through the Student Organic Farm Training program (SOFT, previously called Sustainable and Organic Farm Training), student volunteers plant, grow, harvest, and sell organic produce and help raise agricultural awareness through youth mentoring and gardening workshops.

The department’s research program benefits students and growers alike. Undergraduate students in TPSS are encouraged to complete a research project under the guidance of a faculty member, while graduate students work closely with an advisor and committee members as they conduct independent research. Many research projects involve collaborations between faculty members and stakeholders outside the department, and extension activities make useful applications of research available to farmers, food producers, and gardeners. Areas of active TPSS research in sustainable agriculture include:

  • use of cover crops, green manures, composts, compost teas, flash-carbonized charcoal, and biological waste products to quantifiably improve plant and soil health
  • selection of hardy crop varieties
  • plant–microbe symbioses (e.g., biological nitrogen fixation, mycorrhizae)
  • integrated pest management

The Organic Agriculture Working Group in UH Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources brings together about 30 CTAHR faculty and staff members with expertise in agroecology, agroforestry, business management and marketing, pest and disease management, livestock and pasture management, vegetable production, and environmental soil science. The working group is coordinated by Dr. Ted Radovich, a TPSS extension specialist in sustainable and organic farming systems. Topic leaders for the working group include TPSS’s Dr. Jonathan Deenik (soil fertility) and Dr. Nguyen Hue (organic soil amendments). CTAHR’s sustainable and organic agriculture program website makes it easy to contact working group members, join the college’s organic listserv, subscribe to the electronic newsletter HānaiʻAi (The Food Provider), or access online resources and publications, including the results of a collaborative analysis of Hawai‘i’s organic agriculture industry conducted in 2007. Sustainable and organic agriculture is a prominent part of the O‘ahu Urban Garden Center’s Second Saturday at the Garden events, and volunteer master gardeners on O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i have been trained in ecological gardening methods. Through academic instruction, research, and community education, TPSS promotes a multigenerational commitment to sustainable farming in Hawai‘i.