“These new alliances are unlikely, but hopeful. But they all share one thing: Aloha-‘āina…love of the land.”

            – Clare Gupta on her work in Hawaii


Clare Gupta is a recent addition to the University of California academic ranks. She works as an assistant public policy specialist for the University of California. UC specialists like Clare hold dual appointments with a campus (in her case, UC Davis, where she’s on the faculty in the Department of Human Ecology) and UC’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Division Cooperative Extension Service.

Clare Gupta.

Clare focuses on community and regional development. Her research interests include interdisciplinary work in alternative food networks and community food systems, food politics and agro-food movements (especially local food and food sovereignty) and community-based resource management.

She is particularly interested in the interplay between environmental and agricultural policy and rural livelihoods. She’s traveled across the world to conduct research. Her research also touches on urban food system concerns, including food policy councils and urban agriculture.

Clare trained as a political ecologist, but also has a background in the natural sciences. Clare says that overall, her work “aims to leverage scholarship on the concerns of California communities into data-driven public policy.”

Her work is part of the University of California’s Global Food Initiative, which seeks to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population.

I recently chatted with Clare about a food re-localization project she worked on in Hawaii.


Q: Your current work in alternative and community food systems was influenced by your post-doctoral experience on a project in Hawaii  Can you tell us more about that?

I received a fellowship through the National Science Foundation (NSF), through its Science Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) program. My project enabled me to focus on re-localization and sustainability, linking industrial and political ecology on Molokai and the Big Island in Hawaii. The goal of the Fellowship was to work on the ground with a community partner and to learn a discipline outside your own. My community partner was the Kohala Center, a non-profit that works on issues related to food and energy self-reliance and ecosystem health.

I partnered for some of this work with Marian Chertow from Yale. I’m trained as a political ecologist; she’s an industrial ecologist. We developed a proposal to look at sustainability initiatives in the Hawaiian island, particularly re-localization efforts.

In particular, we wanted to consider drivers of localization efforts and how they are playing out…and to what effect, ecologically and socially speaking. The project lasted two years.

Editor’s Note: NSF has recently discontinued the SEES Fellowship Program. About political ecology: This is an interdisciplinary field of study that examines the relationships and dynamics between environmental, political, economic and social structures/factors. A leading peer reviewed publication for the field is the free, open source Journal of Political EcologyFor some fascinating background about the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of political ecology – which is based in part upon the work of Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Thomas Robert, Malthus, David Ricardo and Karl Marx – read this 1994 piece by James B. Greenberg and Thomas K. Park.


Q: Why is there a need to revive/re-localize agriculture in Hawaii?

Hawaii historically has had a strong agricultural sector, but it’s been based on commodity exports (ex: whaling, sugar, pineapples.) With globalization, there has been a shift. There is now a lot of open agricultural land, although much of it is not in great condition. But among the questions are what do Hawaiians want to do with the land and how do we revive a sustainable agricultural system?


Q: What are some of the things going on in Hawaii regarding land use?

The newest wave involves land being leased out to seed companies, many of which are producing GMO seeds for export. There is a lot of controversy about this and around discussions of what is the best use of land. Do we want to use it in other ways as opposed to producing items for export? There is a sense among many people that local production for local consumption and creating a more diversified agricultural system is desirable.

So the impetus becomes similar to the local food movement on the mainland. How do we create a robust food system that feeds people here?


Q: But Hawaii is different than the mainland…

 Yes, Hawaii has distinct factors and those play into the local food momentum.

First, there’s geography…it’s a chain of islands several thousands of miles away from land mass. Food security is a real consideration and concern…85-90% of Hawaii’s food is imported, per some studies and estimates. Disruptions could cause real problems. [According to at least one study] Hawaii has a 5-10 day supply of food. This provides motivation for thinking about local production.

Editor’s Note: Hawaii has developed an “Increased Food Security and Food Self-Sufficiency Strategy” which outlines ways to increase the amount of locally grown food. Information in the report indicates that the “economic impact of food import replacement is significant”, i.e., growing local might have some significant and positive economic impacts. In addition to marketing strategies (such as “buy local”), there is an emphasis on the importance of increasing production by improving infrastructure. The report is in three parts and includes a history of agriculture in Hawaii. Readers may also want to check out this piece by Todd Woody, about food independence and the environmental costs of importing food.


Q: How is Hawaii’s past influencing the relocalization movement?

Hawaii has a strong and vibrant legacy. When Hawaii was populated by Native Hawaiians, it provided a healthy diet for a large population in a sustainable way. So there’s a sense of revival around the Native Hawaiian diet. And again, it was quite healthy and was based on a few key crops, such as taro and breadfruit. So you had this historically robust food system that sort of collapsed under a colonial model that emphasized commodity exports.

So a key question is, can we revive and go back to that heritage? In many ways, the re-localization movement in Hawaii is also about food sovereignty.

What’s been particularly interesting to me is the intersection of food sovereignty with political sovereignty. It’s a small but strong movement, centered around Native Hawaiian rights, restitution and an effort, for some (though not all) to restore the Hawaiian nation to reclaim land that was stolen. In a sense, it’s a desire to regain control over the land.


Editor’s Note: Food sovereignty is an issue of critical importance around the globe. Related reading: Discussing food sovereignty with Valerie Segrest; Q&A with the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur for Food Hilal Elver; Q&A with Ricardo Salvador, Union of Concerned Scientists; Decolonize Your Diet; Q&A with Janie Simms Hipp: Indigenous Food and Agriculture.


Q: How did you conduct your research?

I’m a qualitative researcher, so my work primarily involved interviews, focus groups, participant observations. There were beginning farmer trainer programs at the Kohala Center. A school garden network was starting with youth to help them understand where food comes from and how to grow and cook it in healthy ways. These programs and projects provided opportunities to meet people. Visit the Kohala Center website to learn more about their other programs.


Q: What were the touch points?

There were many different angles to the local food work I observed in Hawaii. GMOs happened to be particularly controversial at the time I was there. I observed strong activism and a movement against GMO interests.

I’m currently writing a paper on the various legislative efforts, looking at legislation on the Big Island, specifically legislation that will limit GMO crops (some will be grandfathered in, but there will be no additional GMO crops.) I’ve traced what led to the passage of the legislation.

And I didn’t only see concerns with biotechnology. Two other things emerged: land access and land use.

There was a feeling among some people that biotechnology is –  in some senses – just the next big sugar. And many Hawaiians I spoke with regarded this as extractive and didn’t see a lot of benefits.

There was a sense that the rise of biotechnology companies today was somewhat analogous to the rise of Big Sugar in the plantation days.

The mere fact that companies were doing testing of seeds – that Hawaii was a testing ground – and that it was not farmers growing seed, disturbed many people. There were also concerns related to pesticide spraying…and environmental justice. Hawaii and the Pacific Islands have a dark history of being used for military testing and this galvanized outrage.

Editor’s Note: William Chapman has produced a report for the National Park Service on Hawaii, the U.S. military and World War II; it explores cultural and environmental impacts of military installations and activity – including weapons testing – on Hawaii’s National Park.


Q: What does the future hold?

I’m seeing various coalitions come together to make various local and environmental justice movements stronger. Native Hawaiians have joined forces with settlers and newcomers to come together on issues related to these things.

These new alliances are unlikely, but hopeful. But they all share one thing: Aloha-‘āina…love of the land.

Though this has a particularly cultural relevant meaning to Native Hawaiians in particular…it has layers of meaning to Native Hawaiians that go beyond the colloquial use by settlers.


Editor’s Note: Clare has published a number of pieces about her work. A recently released paper – Dairy’s Decline and the Politics of “Local” Milk in Hawai’i – appears in the most recent issue of the journal Food, Culture & Society. It explores the nexus of history and current interest in re-localizing food. You can review the abstract here.

Other resources: The Kohala Center and Hawaii Public Radio have created a 13-week radio series – Aloha ʻĀina – which explores the history of Hawaii’s “love of the land.” The series is comprised of 65 two-minutes segments. Worth a listen.


Other recent publications by Clare:

Gupta, C. Return to freedom: Anti-GMO aloha ‘āina activism on Molokai as an expression of place-based food sovereignty. Globalizations. Pp 1-16. Published early view online September 15 2014. DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2014.957586

Gupta, C. 2014. Spatial scaling of protected area influences on human demography and livelihoods in Botswana. Environmental Conservation 42(1):52-60.

Gupta, C. 2014. Sustainability, self-reliance and aloha aina: the case of Molokai, Hawai‘i. International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology. 21(5): 389-397.

Gupta, C. 2013. Elephants, safety nets and agrarian culture: understanding human-wildlife conflict and rural livelihoods around Chobe National Park, Botswana. Journal of Political Ecology20, 238:254.