By AUDREY McAVOY
HONOLULU — Pests hitchhiking in 40 imported commodities like lettuce and cut flowers account for 90 percent to 95 percent of the pests and potential invasive species entering Hawaii, a state official said Friday.
The Agriculture Department’s “Buy local, it matters” campaign addresses the problem by urging consumers to select Hawaii-grown produce at the supermarket.
The department is also helping farmers grow these products locally so people won’t need to import them, said Carol Okada, plant quarantine manager.
“It’s more than just getting the people to want the product, but it’s also having the growers being able to grow it,” Okada told lawmakers at a hearing on invasive species.
The department is particularly concerned a plant pathogen native to Brazil will sneak into Hawaii in cut flower bouquets. The pathogen called eucalyptus rust is a threat to native ohia trees, which are the dominant tree in Hawaii’s native forests.
Hawaii imports 85 percent to 90 percent of its food and a significant share of flowers.
These products come to the islands in cargo brought through state harbors and airports, but budget cuts forced the Agriculture Department to slash in half the number of inspectors checking cargo for pests from 95 in 2009 to 50.
Pests that sneak into Hawaii can thrive in the state’s subtropical warmth and cause extensive damage to farms and forests. Many native species aren’t able to keep the introduced pests in check because they evolved in isolation and lack natural defenses against their alien counterparts.
Teya Penniman, who leads the Maui Invasive Species Committee, told lawmakers pests will only get worse if efforts to fight pests aren’t adequately funded.
She pointed to the example of the coqui frog — an amphibian native to Puerto Rico that has colonized large parts of the Big Island and is also found in parts of Maui. She also brought up miconia, a weedy tree from South and Central American that is overrunning Oahu forests, making it harder for the land to absorb moisture and replenish aquifers.
“If we don’t put adequate resources in invasive species now … who’s going to pay the consequences? It’s going to be our children, our grandchildren,” she said.