In a federal court class action lawsuit, Kona coffee farmers have recovered more than $15 million in settlement payments from companies accused of marketing fraudulent Kona coffee. More effective than lawsuits, however, would be active enforcement of fair labeling laws by the FDA. What ideas do you have to accomplish that?
One of the most frustrating things regarding false labeling of Hawaiian coffee is the lack of enforceability of Hawaiʻi's labeling laws regarding Kona coffee blends outside of our state. In Congress, I will work to pass amendments within the next farm bill to require Hawaiʻi's coffee labeling laws to be mirrored federally. I will also work to make funds available within the FDA to allow for the speedy testing of coffee blends suspected of false labeling, and work to ensure that companies found to be guilty of false labeling are required to pay a hefty fine consistent with the extent of their falsely labeled product line and the size of the company. I will work to ensure that funds from these penalties are directed to support for Hawaiʻi’s coffee farmers.
In recent years invasive species such as Coffee Berry Borer, Coffee Leaf Rust, and Avocado Lace Bug have been introduced into Hawaii and are drastically reducing the income of farmers. What can you do to bring federal funds or subsidies directly to farmers to combat these destructive new agricultural pests?
Subsidies for farmers in the United States averaged $16 billion per year over the past decade. However, the overwhelming amount of support is concentrated among the so-called "big five" commodities of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. By contrast, specialty crops have had relatively minimal support, and only limited funding to support pest and disease control has been made available. Recently, crop insurance has been made available for specialty crop farmers, but the value of the insured acreage for specialty crops is only about 17% of that of traditional crops. This is billions of dollars worth of federal support that is going to farmers in the midwest, and leaving Hawaiʻi farmers to fend for themselves. Congress needs to do more to support Hawaiʻi's specialty crops. Hawaiʻi-grown coffee is the second most valuable commodity produced in our state, and we need to ensure that the federal support is there as the Hawaiian coffee industry faces threats to its biosecurity. Coffee rust has caused billions in crop losses throughout Central America, and the 900 coffee farms in Hawaiʻi risk a similar fate unless action is taken now to prevent systemic threats to future crops. In Congress, I will advocate for Hawaiʻi-specific funding mechanisms in the 2023 Farm Bill that will include support for research, and direct subsidies for combatting agricultural pests and fungi, as well as direct subsidies for any lost income due to invasive species and diseases.
When we fly to the mainland, USDA agents scan luggage and remove fruits, vegetables and other plant material to prevent damage to mainland farms. When we fly into Hawaii, there is a voluntary disclosure system and “Amnesty Bins”--and no involvement on the part of the USDA. What are your ideas on how to bring the same type of USDA protections to Hawaii farmers as provided to mainland farmers?
In Congress, I will work with the Department of Transportation, Department of Homeland Security, and the USDA to ensure there is equity for Hawaiʻi’s farmers when it comes to visitors from the continent threatening Hawaiʻi’s biosecurity. An idea to study could involve moving direct flights to Hawaiʻi from the continent to international terminals at the airports of origin, which are already equipped for extra screening that some foreign governments require of international passengers. In these terminals there could be USDA agents stationed to scan luggage for travelers to Hawaiʻi. If the burden for further agricultural screening would ultimately fall to Hawaiʻi’s airports, I would work with the Department of Transportation and USDA to secure the funding necessary to have USDA agents scan luggage for passengers from the continent upon their arrival in Hawaiʻi.
Please close by telling us a bit more about yourself and your commitment to agriculture. Mahalo!
My name is Patrick Pihana Branco, and I am the State Representative for House District 50 (Kailua and Kāne‘ohe Bay). I was born and raised in Kailua, and spent my summers working on my great-grandfather’s farm on Hawaiʻi Island. I graduated from the Kamehameha Schools, Hawai’i Pacific University, and Johns Hopkins University. Drawn to public service, I joined the U.S. Foreign Service as a Diplomat in 2012. I served tours in Colombia, Pakistan, Venezuela, the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan, and in the Secretary of State’s Operations Center. During my first tour in Colombia, I worked with USAID and the Department of Commerce to fund research with the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia while they were researching coffee resistant varieties to coffee rust. I believe agriculture is a key tenant for the diversification of Hawai‘i’s economy. Agriculture is already Hawaiʻi’s third-largest industry, and Hawaiʻi’s 2nd District is responsible for 94% of Hawaiʻi’s agricultural sales. In Congress, I will work to bring federal funding and grants from USDA to ensure that Hawaiʻi’s agricultural sector is protected from invasive species and diseases. I will also ensure that funding for Hawaiʻi’s specialty crops, livestock, and fishing industries are boosted in the next Farm Bill. I also know that we cannot properly invest in our agricultural sector unless we can make the needed investments in the infrastructure on the Neighbor Islands, and increase the supply of affordable housing. I will work with community members and stakeholders throughout the Neighbor Islands to identify how the federal government can best serve our communities, and secure the investments needed from the US Department of Transportation and Department of Housing and Urban Development to address disparities in rural infrastructure and housing.