New York Times essay winner heading to HI—looks forward to learning about food security efforts and trying poi

In March, Ariel Kaminer, author of the New York Times Magazine‘s “The Ethicist” column, invited people to send in essays answering the question: Is it ethical to eat meat? The results were published in last Sunday’s issue, and the winner, Jay Bost, is planning to move to Hawai‘i next year to pursue a Ph.D. in tropical plant and soil science. The agroecologist currently teaches at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC, and could add interesting thoughts to our ongoing conversation on farming—and its future—in Hawai‘i. He writes that eating meat is defensible when “one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combinie this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.” It’s clear that a growing number of people in Hawai‘i eat by those tenets, and a growing cadre of Hawai‘i chefs and farmers are instrumental in feeding us the important message (you know who you are!). Read Mr. Bost’s full essay.

I took the liberty of emailing Mr. Bost a few questions, which he graciously and thoughtfully answered:

Eatizen Jane: You’ve studied agroecology in a dry climate—what spurs you to study tropical plant and soil science? And why did you choose the University of Hawai‘i?
Jay Bost: Well, I have studied agroecology in dry climates, but also I have lived, researched and farmed extensively in the subtropics (northern Florida) and the tropics (Mexico and St. Croix, USVI).  I chose UH because I love the agricultural possibilities in the tropics and how quickly one can establish diverse, delicious agroecosystems. Having spent a good deal of time studying and growing in the greater Caribbean basin, I thought exposing myself to the plants, agricultural traditions, and cultures of the Pacific would give a greater breadth to my education. I am very excited to learn about work that farmers, chefs, and community groups are doing in Hawai’i to promote food security and the conservation of diverse foodways. I am also very impressed by the work being carried out at CTAHR and by the National Tropical Botanical Gardens (particularly the Bread Fruit Institute), USDA’s United States Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, and Hawai’i Tropical Fruit Growers, and look forward to learning and collaborating with these wonderful groups.

EJ: What do you think about companies such as Monsanto using Hawai‘i as a biotech crop testing spot? It’s big business here, as I’m sure you know.
JB: I think that conservative risk avoidance measures should be taken when experimenting with these crops and that communities need to be involved in discussions about the research being carried out. While I believe that agroecological and biological approaches to agricultural problems will, in the end, be the most cost effective, applicable, and sustainable, I think that the technologies of biotech have certain potentials, used appropriately, to to aid us in feeding ourselves sustainably. That said, the research on these technologies should be highly transparent and oriented towards general well being over profit. I hope that the future of the biotech conversation can be less contentious and more driven by transparent data, good will, and respect from both sides of the debate. As with most technologies, its the application of it that, in the end, determines its legacy.

EJ: Are you also aware of the small but growing agroecology movement here? Farms such as MA‘O Farms raise not only organic crops, but youth leaders in an impoverished area at the same time.
I do not know much yet about the growing agroecology movement in Hawai’i, but I am certainly excited to participate and eat from it!  I do know that Hawai’i, ironically, faces many of the same issues in regards to food security that I experienced in St. Croix, USVI, namely being highly reliant on imported food. I am excited to eat fresh, local food in Hawai’i and am relieved that it’s available to a certain extent. I hope the movement continues to grow and that my work at CTAHR can be part of that movement.  Its better for our health, the local economy, our security, our sense of place, and the planet’s threatened ecosystems! Hawai’i is such a fertile land with rich traditions of agriculture. It should strive towards the greatest food self sufficiency possible while still preserving the wild lands harboring its unique flora and fauna that remain.

EJ: When do you expect to arrive in Honolulu, and what are you looking forward to eating here?
JB: We expect to arrive in mid-August, me, my partner, Nora, our son Kailu Sassafras, and our two dogs, Tublu and Mushu.  It will be quite a journey for us all from here on the Swannanoa River in Appalachia where we have spent the last year.

We will miss some of the foods available here in North Carolina, particularly the amazingly ethically raised animals produced on the campus of Warren Wilson College where I have been teaching.  But, my palate is enamored with the tropics! In terms of food to try in Hawai’i, wow! Lots of things!  I am particularly excited to try poi, being a lover of taro and fermentation. I also love the diversity of cooking greens and fresh spices found in the tropics, and look forward to learning many new species and uses in Hawai’i. Of course, the fresh fish! Being obsessed with avocados, I look forward to sampling the diverse varieties of avocados that are found on the island. And having fallen in love with breadfruit in the Caribbean, I look forward to trying the diversity of varieties and preparation techniques found in the Pacific. Lastly, I can’t wait to try the chocolate two friends are producing locally at Madre Chocolates.


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