Case study casts doubt over ESG claims of Canadian pension fund PSP’s major agriculture investment on Maui

Case study casts doubt over ESG claims of Canadian pension fund PSP’s major agriculture investment on Maui, calls for greater scrutiny into the community impact of investments

Responsible Markets today published a case study of an approximately $600 million investment that the $135.59 billion Public Sector Pension Investment Board (PSP) is making in a former sugar plantation in Maui, Hawai’i. The report found evidence that the Montreal, Canada based pension plan, which invests its capital through PSP Investments, is not living up to its own environmental, social responsibility, and corporate governance (ESG) principles, resulting in adverse impacts on Maui’s environment and residents.

The study entitled “From the Mountains to the Sea: When Big Money Moved in on Maui’s Agriculture” takes a comprehensive look at Mahi Pono LLC, capitalized by PSP. Mahi Pono was created in December of 2018 under management of Pomona Farming, a subsidiary of the California based private equity firm Trinitas Partners. It now owns and operates over 41,000 acres of farmland in Maui’s central plains, which it acquired from long-time plantation owner Alexander & Baldwin.

Among Responsible Markets’ findings is that the success of the Mahi Pono investment is dependent on securing water rights at exceptionally low rates, at a direct economic and cultural cost to the indigenous Hawaiian people, and on the continued diversion of water away from East Maui, a practice that undermines Hawaiian farming communities. Rather than creating local food security as the company has promised, the Mahi Pono business plan is dependent on export crops. Additionally, the company operates secretively and with little transparency, and has failed to generate the number of jobs promised.

“Through Mahi Pono, PSP is seeking to profit by exploiting the resources of the Hawaiian people,” said Shay Chan Hodges, a co-organizer of Responsible Markets’ initiative, the Maui ESG Project, and co-author of the report. “This is not an ESG investment; it is merely a new version of the extractive practices of plantation capitalism that have been so damaging to Maui’s culture, environment, and economy for over 100 years.”

“The Mahi Pono case study illustrates the importance of early community engagement and ongoing partnership in land-based investing,” says Delilah Rothenberg Founder and Executive Director of the Predistribution Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort to improve investment structures to share more wealth and influence with workers and communities, and ultimately address systemic risks including income inequality and climate change.

“With capital flows that are so intermediated, meaningful relationship development is often overlooked by distant investors – even asset owners and allocators who are taking measures to integrate ESG. Yet this lapse jeopardizes investors’ returns and perpetuates legacies of colonialism, with foreign powers undervaluing the risk that locals take and the value they offer with their land, resources, and labor,” concluded Rothenberg.

“Large private market agricultural land acquisitions in Hawai’i are all too familiar – wealthy investors parachuting in, missing a golden opportunity to ‘build back better’ for all impacted community stakeholders,” says Lisa Kleissner, impact investment pioneer and co-founder of Hawaii Investment Ready. “While access to water is the hook in this report, the water issue serves to underscore the lack of alignment between Mahi Pono’s objectives and the community’s needs. This report comes to the rescue by laying out in clear, pragmatic terms how Mahi Pono LLC and, for that matter, any private investor in agriculture can move investor/community discourse to a new, mutually beneficial level. First, ancestral rights must be acknowledged and addressed. And secondly, the business and financial model must demonstrate evidence-based community-aligned economics.”

The report shows how investors use the language of ESG and impact investment to promote, and invest in, economic opportunities that do not necessarily have a net positive ESG benefit. Responsible Markets calls on PSP and its staff to meet directly with community members and other stakeholders on Maui to understand the problems Mahi Pono is causing as well as the missed opportunities for positive transformative investment. True community intelligence is invaluable and cannot be outsourced to investment managers and advisors.

Mahi Pono farmers pivot amid pandemic

Maui News
by Kehaulani Cerizo –

New crops go to market; 3,500 acres of plantings slated this year –

Wind. Drought. Pests. Farming in Central Maui already holds a unique set of challenges. Add a global pandemic and agriculture operations are tested in a whole new way.

So Mahi Pono, the largest agriculture company on Maui, has made key changes to its operations in light of coronavirus.

The pandemic affected everything from shipping costs — a 46 percent increase in Young Brothers rates took effect last year — to in-field work that needed COVID-19 safety protocols. Restaurants and hotels — major markets for local produce — closed, causing the company to look at the type and scale of its crops.

One bright spot of the pandemic is that it emphasized the need for food sustainability, making farming more essential than ever, Mahi Pono officials said.

“We’re an island state that continues to import about 90 percent of all of our food; that makes us vulnerable every time there’s a natural disaster, shipping issues or a global pandemic,” said Shan Tsutsui, Mahi Pono chief operating officer.

During a recent farm tour, Tsutsui and Mahi Pono officials discussed the pandemic’s impact on last year’s farm plan and products made available in 2020, along with adjustments they’ve made to this year’s plan.

They highlighted the Chef’s Corner project, a test plot for new crops; the progress of the company’s community farm, which rents parcels to local farmers; and recent plantings that have done surprisingly well, including watermelon, broccolini, kale and green beans.

Instead of producing a signature crop, Mahi Pono wants to be known for an array of locally grown foods — a big departure from the monocrop of sugar cane that has occupied Central Maui fields for more than a century.

“Transforming former sugar cane fields into diversified agriculture is not an easy task,” Tsutsui said. “It takes time, hard work and financial commitment.”

Watermelon for the people

Chase Stevenson, Mahi Pono Chef’s Corner farm manager, showed off its rows of green, yellow and purple beans, butternut and kabocha squash, red kale, green kale, dinosaur kale, bok choy, green onions and orange sweet potato.

The corner, comprising about 40 acres of organically managed land off Maui Veterans Highway, tests what works best for Mahi Pono farmers and for the market, Stevenson said. From there, farmers scale and grow. Each time the crop is rotated, it improves the soil.

Stevenson, who has about a decade of Maui farming experience at Kula Agriculture Park and in Haliimaile, said farming in the central plains is both challenging and rewarding.

“You never know what you’re going to run into. It is fun even though it doesn’t sound fun — it keeps things interesting,” Stevenson said, laughing.

Some crops, such as watermelon, were a pleasant surprise. Watermelon grown on about a half-acre was consumed almost entirely by the local market with the remainder shipped to the Big Island, Tsutsui said. Because it was a hit, watermelon fields will be expanded with yields scheduled for summer.

Darren Strand, vice president of agricultural outreach and business development, said the company is learning that beans, broccolini and kale do really well, but with COVID-19 causing restaurant and hospitality markets to scale back, it’s hard to move produce that would typically sell easily.

“Anything you grow with a good quality and a consistent supply, you are going to be able to move,” Strand said. “Hopefully things are going to turn around in the next month or so and we will be positioned with this project, and some potatoes, onions and papayas, to be ready to hit that and run.”

Farther south, sweet onions are at various stages of growth, with some ready for April or May harvest. Non-GMO solo and sunrise papaya trees that were sticks last year have shot up and are producing well.

In all, Mahi Pono will plant more than 3,500 new acres of crops this year, according to Grant Nakama, vice president of operations.

Another program, the Mahi Pono community farm, expects tenants to move in by the end of this month. The program provides “farm ready” land, including water, to local growers for $150 per acre a year. Tentative agreements have been reached with 14 farmers and small businesses for an initial 60 acres. A second phase of community farmland will add more acreage, officials said.

Pivoting amid the pandemic

Despite the pandemic, Mahi Pono last year brought its products to market under the Maui Harvest brand. Potatoes were sold at Whole Foods in Kahului, Honolulu and Kailua; watermelon, KTA Market in Hilo; papayas, Takamiya Market in Wailuku; watermelon, potatoes, eggplant, Pukalani Superette; papayas, Target in Kahului; broccolini, Tamuras in Kahului and Lahaina; and watermelon, Times Supermarket in Kihei and Honokowai.

An extra emphasis was placed on row crops after the onset of the pandemic in order to provide more locally grown potatoes, onions and papaya.

“This shift allowed us to donate more than 60,000 pounds of produce to nonprofit organizations like Maui Food Bank, Hawaii Foodbank and Chef Hui that directly helped those in need,” Tsutsui said.

Another area of growth despite the pandemic was Mahi Pono’s staff. The company went from 150 employees at the start of 2020 to about 260 employees at the beginning of this year.

“As an essential business during the pandemic, we were fortunate to be able to continue farming, expand operations and hire more employees,” said Mark Vaught, vice president of farm development.

Vaught, Nakama and Tsutsui were promoted in 2020. Tsutsui succeeded Tim O’Laughlin, who relocated to California to focus on new initiatives for both Mahi Pono and Pomona Farming, a news release said.

When it cames to water in 2020, Nakama said Mahi Pono made “every effort to be efficient.”

In 2020 the company diverted an average of 22.7 million gallons per day from East Maui — below the state interim in-stream flow standards and half the allowable water allocation under the Alexander & Baldwin revocable permit, he added.

“The amount of water was the minimum needed to support our agricultural operations and to meet our obligations to the County of Maui for Upcountry residents and water users,” Nakama said.

Looking forward, he said the company will continue to divert only what is needed to meet crop and Maui County obligations.

For ‘generations to come’

Mahi Pono, a joint venture between a California farming company and a Canadian pension fund, acquired 41,000 acres of former sugar cane land and half of the East Maui Irrigation water delivery system from Alexander & Baldwin in late 2018.

Since the purchase, Mahi Pono officials have said they should be viewed separately from A&B, which has a controversial history of water use and sugar cane operations.

Still, Albert Perez, executive director and co-founder of environmental group Maui Tomorrow Foundation, said the future of the new company remains uncertain because A&B has a hand in its success due to A&B’s control of East Maui water rights.

He added that the foundation is working with regenerative farmers to provide Mahi Pono a list of suggestions that will boost soil fertility, reduce and eliminate the need for pesticides, minimize windblown dust and increase the water retaining capacity of the soil.

“However, we are hopeful that under the leadership of Maui native Shan Tsutsui, sustainable, value-added agriculture that provides local food security will truly be the goal,” said Perez, who recently toured the farm.

Tsutsui, the former Hawaii lieutenant governor, said his life has been dedicated to public service. He said he sees Mahi Pono, which provides student internships and nonprofit programs, as the next chapter of community outreach.

“For me, it has been rewarding to be able to be a part something that’s going to have a major, positive impact on our community for many generations to come,” he said. “Not only are we growing crops for consumption, but we are also ensuring that Central Maui will remain undeveloped and in agriculture well into the future.”

Tsutsui said that in its short time, Mahi Pono has been working tirelessly, especially during a pivotal pandemic year. This includes clearing the land, researching the best crops that would thrive in Central Maui’s soil and climate, investing in modern farming technology and equipment, planting and maintaining fields, and implementing a food processing system and distribution channels.

It also established relationships with distributors, wholesalers and chefs to get Maui Harvest produce into stores, restaurants and homes, he said.

But like all worthy endeavors, changing the course of history will take time, Tsutsui said.

“We still have a long a road ahead,” he said. “We really want the public to be patient and understand that this will take time, but we are committed to delivering quality, Maui-grown produce.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at



Crops already in the ground:

• Citrus: More than 1,800 acres. Along Haleakala, Maui Veterans and Kuihelani highways and Central Maui interior fields.

• Coffee: More than 150 acres. Right below Pukalani.

• Potato: More than 50 acres. In western fields between Maui Veterans and Kuihelani highways.

• Onions: More than 50 acres. In western fields between Maui Veterans and Kuihelani highways.

• Papaya: More than 20 acres. In Central Maui interior fields.

• Avocado: More than 10 acres. Near Maui Humane Society and Maui Veterans Highway.

Planting this year:

• 3,500 more acres of citrus.

• 150 more acres of coffee.

• Replanting onions and potatoes.

• 20 more acres of papaya.

An additional 20 acres to be planted in the Chef’s Corner project (in western fields between Maui Veterans and Kuihelani highways), which will serve as a test plot for potential new crops.

Planting crops — and carbon, too

Washington Post
Story by Gabriel Popkin –

Maryland farmer Trey Hill pulled in a healthy haul of corn last fall and then immediately planted rye, turnips, clover and other species, which are now spreading a lush green carpet over the soil. While his grandfather, who started the family farm along the Chesapeake Bay, always planted in the spring in a clean field, in Hill’s approach to farming, “you never want to see the ground.”

As the winter cover crops grow, they will feed microbes and improve the soil’s health, which Hill believes will eventually translate into higher yields of the crops that provide his income: corn, soybean and wheat.

But just as importantly, they will pull down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the ground. Hill is at the cutting edge of what many hope will provide not just a more nature-friendly way of farming, but a powerful new climate solution.

In early 2020, he became the first seller in a privately run farmer-focused marketplace that paid him $115,000 for practices that, over the past few years, had sequestered just over 8,000 tons of carbon in the soil. The money came from corporations and individuals who want to offset carbon dioxide produced by their activities. Hill used the proceeds to buy equipment he hopes will allow him to squirrel away even more of the planet-warming gas.

If farmers throughout the world adopted similar “regenerative” methods, experts estimate they could sequester a sizable chunk of the world’s carbon emissions. The idea has been endorsed by soil scientists, a slew of food industry giants and, recently, President Biden.

But some doubt that farmed soils can reliably store carbon long enough to make a difference for the climate — or that changes in soil carbon can be accurately yet affordably measured. Others worry voluntary measures such as soil sequestration could make a polluting food and agriculture industry appear environmentally friendly while forestalling stronger climate action.

Researchers and companies are now racing to reduce the scientific uncertainties and win over skeptics.

Many scientists are confident that farming can be adapted to build carbon into soils, said Deborah Bossio, a soil scientist at the Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization. “We know how to do it,” she said.

Agriculture has done a masterful job of feeding the world’s burgeoning population. It has been less wonderful for the climate. For thousands of years, plowing has mixed underground carbon-containing compounds with atmospheric oxygen, creating carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that is driving global warming. Researchers estimate that farming throughout history has unearthed roughly 133 billion tons of carbon, an amount equal to almost 14 years of global emissions at current levels.

To prevent climate change from irrevocably damaging human civilization and the world’s ecosystems, humans must reduce carbon emissions enough to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, scientists say. Some areas of the planet have already passed that threshold.

[Dangerous new hot zones are spreading around the world]

As scientists came to appreciate the threat posed by climate change over the past few decades, some wondered whether carbon already in the atmosphere could be captured and returned to the soil. A team led by Bossio estimated in early 2020 that if soil was protected and replenished globally, it could provide nearly 10 percent of the carbon dioxide drawdown needed to avert near-term climate catastrophe.

Soil carbon building practices, loosely gathered under the term “regenerative agriculture,” have been practiced for decades, or centuries in some places. Planting without tilling the soil took off after the devastating Dust Bowl in the 1930s spurred a search for ways to avert further soil loss, and the practice now includes more than a fifth of U.S. farmland. Maryland has paid farmers to plant cover crops since the 1990s to stanch the flow of nitrogen into the Chesapeake Bay. Some livestock producers rotate animals on pastures of grasses and legumes, whose roots pull carbon underground. And though rare in the United States today, farmers elsewhere in the world mix trees into fields and pastures.

Hill, who farms 10,000 acres, admitted he got into cover crops purely because the state paid him. “We had no intent of doing it for climate,” he said.

But he has since become a true believer. He now mixes rye and other fast-growing grasses with legumes such as clover and lentils, whose roots host nitrogen-fixing bacteria. He also plants root crops such as radishes and turnips to loosen and aerate the soil. While most farmers kill their cover crops in March, as soon as the state allows, Hill lets the plants grow taller than he is, to maximize root mass and carbon gains. He kills them just before planting his cash crop in May.

“The longer the cover crop is alive, the better off we all are,” he said.

There are barriers that keep more farmers from following his lead, Hill said. He has had to buy specialized equipment, and climate-friendly farming hasn’t yet translated to higher yields or premium prices.

“It’s a b—- to farm this way,” he said. Turnips can get stuck in his planting equipment, costing his team valuable time, for example. “It makes life a lot more difficult, and not necessarily more profitable.”

Hill sells most of his corn to the chicken producer Mountaire Farms, which pays him the same market price other suppliers get. If farmers were paid for the carbon accumulating in their soils, they would have greater incentive to adopt climate-friendly practices, Hill said.

But implementing that idea is challenging. Carbon accumulates slowly in soil, and past attempts to pay farmers for it have failed when the costs of verifying carbon gains exceeded what buyers were willing to pay. Backers of new, private-sector carbon markets hope that computer models fed by data from farm fields, satellites and handheld carbon sensors can measure and predict soil carbon gains more cheaply and reliably.

Hill connected with one of those markets, a Seattle-based tech start-up called Nori. After lengthy negotiations, credits representing carbon stored in some of Hill’s fields went on sale in October 2019 at $16.50 a ton — around the most an acre of his farmland might capture in a year, Hill said. Buyers included the e-commerce company Shopify, Arizona State University and individuals looking to offset the carbon their activities produce.

Nori eschews traditional soil tests, which can cost thousands of dollars for a large farm, and instead relies on third-party audits and a U.S. Agriculture Department computer model called COMET-Farm that estimates greenhouse gas emissions from farms.

Nori has competitors. One is Indigo Ag, a Boston-based ag-tech company that has lined up corporate customers including JPMorgan Chase, Boston Consulting Group and Dogfish Head to buy credits for carbon stored in more than a million acres of farmland across 21 states. After farmers upload their 2020 data, Indigo will calculate the amount of carbon stored and verify the numbers with a third party, a process that could take six months.

Still, the emerging market has hit speed bumps. Nori hoped to enroll more than 100 farmers in 2020, but so far, only Hill and an Iowa farmer have sold credits on the marketplace, with three more in the final stage of verification, according to Radhika Moolgavkar, a Nori program manager. At least one potential buyer, Microsoft, which has pledged to go “carbon negative” by 2030, turned down Nori’s credits because they weren’t backed by physical soil samples, Moolgavkar said. A Microsoft spokesperson declined to confirm that account.

“We’re seeing market formation in real time,” said David LeZaks, a senior fellow at the Croatan Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches sustainable investment.

The maturation of soil carbon science has complicated matters. Reduced tillage, already practiced by thousands of farmers, was once considered a major climate win because researchers saw carbon accumulate near the surface of untilled soils. But studies that sampled deeper soil layers revealed that carbon was lost there, wiping out most of the apparent gains.

Cover crops, whose roots and stalks add organic matter to the soil, have become the hotter item. A recent global meta-analysis estimated that if cover crops were planted on 15 percent of the world’s cropland, soils could soak up between 1 and 2 percent of all fossil fuel emissions. In December, Biden announced he wants to pay farmers to plant cover crops, and his USDA transition team has called for setting up a “carbon bank” within the first 100 days of his administration that would pay farmers, ranchers and forest owners for climate-friendly practices.

The USDA already offers three-year grants to encourage farmers to grow cover crops, but those have had limited impact. A 2017 USDA census found that cover crops were grown on less than 4 percent of American cropland.

Some researchers have questioned the practice’s climate benefits. In papers published last year based on long-term research plots in Iowa and California, scientists reported that when they measured carbon in soil to a depth of a meter or more, the gains of cover crops largely disappeared, similar to what had happened to no-till. By contrast, organic farming may do more to build deep reserves of carbon, those and other studies suggest.

Last year, the World Resources Institute, a leading Washington environmental nonprofit organization, stirred debate when it published two blog posts strongly questioning whether farming practices could make a meaningful dent in climate change.

Tim Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton University and senior fellow at WRI who was the lead author of both posts, says cover cropping and other regenerative practices are good for soil and the environment generally, but their carbon drawdown rates are too low to play a major role in averting climate disaster.

“An overfocus on soil carbon is a diversion from the climate strategies that can have a bigger impact,” Searchinger said in an interview. These include restoring carbon-absorbing peatlands, reducing methane emissions from cattle and other ruminants, and increasing the productivity of existing farmland to discourage deforestation.

Soil-based strategies are also limited in duration. Sequestration rates are highest in severely degraded soils, and after a few decades of climate-friendly farming, most soils become saturated with carbon — a fact not always noted by regenerative agriculture promoters, said David Powlson, a researcher at Rothamsted Research in Britain, which hosts the world’s longest-running agriculture experiment: “It’s not like getting rid of a coal-fired power station and replacing it with renewables, where exactly the same carbon savings is happening every year.”

Some fear emerging carbon markets risk wasting a rare opportunity for broader agricultural changes while giving corporations cover from more stringent climate regulations. Large industrial farmers such as Hill already benefit from a bevy of government programs, critics point out, while small-scale farmers with limited acreage will struggle to tap into markets. Expanding existing programs that pay farmers to grow native vegetation rather than crops could be a more cost-effective way to achieve climate benefits, others say.

Still, regenerative agriculture practices appeal to many experts because they’re field-tested and ready to be implemented.

“They are relatively inexpensive, relatively easy to adopt, and have a huge area of land where they’re suitable, and they have tremendous momentum and provide huge benefits to farms,” said Eric Toensmeier, a consultant with Project Drawdown and author of a recent report comparing the climate benefits of dozens of farming practices. “Cover cropping is one of the lowest hanging fruits.”

For Hill, the money from Nori was nice, but he doubts it will be enough to get more traditional farmers off the sidelines. An acre of single-species cover crops could cost $25 to $40 to plant; a biodiverse mix like Hill’s can run $65 an acre. And unlike Hill, most farmers can’t get payments from their state.

Still, between emerging carbon markets, a potential federal program and consumers waking up to the climate costs of food production, Hill is confident that he’s making a move that will be good for both the planet and his bottom line.

“Soil health,” he said, “should be the solution to climate change.”

Can we finally standardize ESG standards?

By Tim Mohin

Most GreenBiz readers are well aware of the complex sustainability reporting landscape. It seems like every year new reporting standards or frameworks are added to the overstuffed workload of the corporate sustainability professional.

As the former chief executive of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), I had a role in the ongoing movement to “standardize the standards” that companies use to report their sustainability results. I also worked on the corporate side (Intel, Apple and AMD) and have a deep appreciation of the work that goes into these reports.

Over the years, there has been more talk than action on reducing confusion and burden in the reporting space. To be fair, some of the burden is self-inflicted by companies that insist on publishing 100-plus page sustainability reports.

As we enter 2021, there are strong signals of meaningful change in the sustainability reporting world. Three main trends are emerging:

Mandatory disclosure: Policymakers are increasingly requiring ESG disclosure around the world. For example, the European Union (EU) will tighten its “Non-Financial Reporting Directive” in 2021, which requires environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosure from companies with more than 500 employees doing business in the EU. And it’s likely that the incoming U.S. administration will introduce new ESG mandates as well.
Investor demand: There were record inflows to ESG investment funds in 2020 and the total tops $40 trillion — larger than the entire U.S. economy. Major asset managers such as BlackRock are using their ownership stake to pressure companies to improve their ESG disclosures.
Consolidated ESG standards: Recently, four leading ESG standards organizations — GRI, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB); CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project); the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB); and the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) — declared their intent to collaborate. While this is a welcome signal, all of this work could be rendered moot by the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation’s proposal to develop ESG standards. One hundred twenty countries use the IFRS Standards as the foundation for company financial disclosure, making it more than likely that these countries will endorse and require companies to use the new ESG standards.
The IFRS Foundation received more than 500 comment letters on its sustainability standards proposal with many key stakeholders in support. Given the momentum, the IFRS Foundation seems well-positioned to accomplish the elusive goal of a single global ESG standard

I have stated publicly and will reiterate here that I strongly support the IFRS action. A globally accepted ESG standard will improve the quality and comparability of disclosure, unlocking investment and trade that will improve, rather than ignore, the sustainability needs of society.

But there are several key challenges to address:

1. Materiality: The mission of the IFRS Foundation is “to develop standards that bring transparency, accountability and efficiency to financial markets around the world.” The concerns of financial markets are a subset of the broader concerns of sustainability. The IFRS Foundation must adopt a broader view to create transparency for sustainability issues that may not yet be financially material to companies or investors but are very important from a sustainability lens. Many companies already report on ESG matters beyond the scope of financial materiality and, as we saw in the pandemic, the definition of materiality is fluid and dynamic. It’s crucial that the IFRS articulates a strategy to straddle the boundary of “dual materiality,” enabling transparency on issues important for financial reasons and important to people and the planet.

2. Comparability: Many have criticized the lack of comparability in sustainability disclosures. Sustainability, unlike financial matters, includes a vast array of disparate issues that are not easily compared. An example is reporting on gender diversity vs. greenhouse gas emissions: Both are well within the scope of sustainability reporting, but obviously can be neither compared nor offset. As such factors cannot be reasonably merged into a sustainability score, they must be compared within the boundaries of the topic. The IFRS should emphasize the inherent lack of comparability between disparate ESG issues.

To enhance ESG comparability, the IFRS should consider the concepts in the International Business Council/World Economic Forum report: “Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism: Towards Common Metrics and Consistent Reporting of Sustainable Value Creation.” It outlines a series of universal metrics drawn from existing ESG standards. Setting aside the selection of the metrics, universally required disclosures will provide greater consistency of reporting across sectors and thus increase the quality and comparability of reporting.

3. Capabilities: The IFRS’s competency and credibility in the development of globally accepted financial disclosure standards makes them a natural hub for this work. But, because they have little experience with ESG issues, they will need to hire staff with sustainability credentials. And as they develop the standards, the IFRS must engage recognized experts in each respective topic that represent all relevant sectors, geographies and stakeholders. Blending sustainability expertise with the IFRS core competencies will not be easy, but is essential for the success of this proposal.

4. Technology: The sad fact is that the tools for gathering, auditing and reporting sustainability information are poor. The IFRS should incorporate the latest reporting technology into its sustainability standards. Information technology will not only reduce the burden of reporting, it will make it more actionable. Technology also will improve the quality of reporting, thus making it more reliable for investors and stakeholders and thus more effective in driving sustainability benefits.

After 35 years working in this field, it’s rewarding to see the rapid maturation of the sustainability movement. By taking on ESG standards, the IFRS Foundation is forging a path toward a global common language for sustainability. It is also confirming that sustainability has moved into the mainstream of global commerce. In essence, this signals the alignment of capitalism with the needs of people and our planet — and not a moment too soon.

30 Years Without a Plan — Auditor Rips Agribusiness Development Corp.

Hawaii Free Press

Audit of the Agribusiness Development Corporation

Auditor’s Summary — Report No. 21-01 –

From Hawaii State Auditor, January 14, 2021 –

More than 25 years after its creation, we found an agency that is generally unaware of its unique powers and exemptions, and has done little – if anything – toward achieving its statutory purpose. From 1994 to 2012, the corporation managed two former plantation water systems on Kaua‘i and one on O‘ahu, supplying water to farmers but doing little else to develop new international, national, and local markets for Hawai‘i-grown products, to promote diversified agriculture across the state, or to develop an agriculture industry to replace the economic loss caused by the closure of the plantations.

THE HAWAI‘I STATE LEGISLATURE created the Agribusiness Development Corporation (ADC) in 1994 amidst a series of sugar and pineapple plantation closures that lawmakers viewed as “an unprecedented opportunity for the conversion of agriculture into a dynamic growth industry.” Projecting that the downsizing of sugar and pineapple production would free up 75,000 acres of agricultural land and 50 million gallons of water daily over the next decade, the Legislature established ADC as a public corporation tasked with developing an “aggressive and dynamic” agribusiness development program to convert former plantation assets for use by new large-scale commercial enterprises producing the majority of their crops for export.

What we found

We found that ADC has done little – if anything – to facilitate the development of agricultural enterprises to replace the economic loss created by the demise of the sugar and pineapple industries. After almost 30 years, ADC has yet to develop an agribusiness plan – a plan required by statute – to define and establish goals, objectives, policies, and priority guidelines for its agribusiness development strategy or other short- and long-range strategic plans.

Instead of leading the State’s agricultural transformation, ADC primarily manages 4,257 acres of land it started acquiring in 2012 at the direction of the Legislature as well as the Waiāhole Water System on O‘ahu. Yet, we found that the corporation struggles to manage its lands, challenged by the myriad duties required for effective land management. For instance, a preferred anchor tenant had occupied ADC land for years without a formal, written agreement. We saw evidence of the tenant’s farming activity during an October 2019 site visit, roughly two weeks before ADC finally executed a license agreement with terms retroactive to 2016. That tenant also had provided services in exchange for rent credits, building reservoirs and paving roads used by other ADC tenants. But, ADC did not follow the state procurement process when authorizing the work nor did it document, monitor, or track the services, labor, or materials the tenant provided. In fact, the Executive Director acknowledged that ADC had opted to take the tenant’s “word” on the services provided, the costs incurred, and the materials used.

Finally, we found that ADC’s Board of Directors, as the head of the corporation, has provided minimal guidance and oversight of ADC’s operations. Rather than taking an active role in developing agribusiness policies, establishing short- and long-term strategic plans, and charting the corporation’s direction, the Chairperson and Vice-Chairperson believe that the Board’s responsibility is to address whatever business is brought before it by the Executive Director. And, as a result of the Board’s abdication of its policy-making and oversight responsibilities, ADC has yet to provide the necessary leadership to facilitate the transition of agricultural lands and infrastructure from plantation operations into other agricultural enterprises that it was intended to provide after almost 30 years since its creation.

Why did these problems occur?

ADC – both its Board of Directors and its staff – does not understand the corporation’s overarching purpose, a mission that has remained unchanged since its creation in 1994 and is clearly stated in statute: ADC was established “as a public corporation to administer an aggressive and dynamic agribusiness development program” to replace the economic loss caused by the closure of Hawai‘i’s sugar and pineapple plantations. The Legislature intended the corporation “to facilitate the transition of agricultural infrastructure from plantation operations into other agricultural enterprises, to carry on the marketing analysis to direct agricultural industry evolution, and to provide leadership for the development, financing, improvement, or enhancement of agricultural enterprises.” And, ADC was granted powers and exemptions unique in Hawai‘i state government that afford the corporation unrivaled flexibility to bring former plantation lands back into production “in a timely manner.” However, as with its primary statutory mission, the corporation is generally unaware of those powers and how they can be used to develop a diversified agriculture industry for Hawai‘i.

ADC has failed to prepare a Hawai‘i agribusiness plan – which is required under Chapter 163D, Hawai‘i Revised Statutes – that would define and establish the goals, objectives, policies, and priority guidelines for the corporation’s agribusiness development strategy. The Executive Director thinks such a plan is unnecessary: “I have everything up here,” he said, pointing to his head. In lieu of a written strategic plan, short-term or long-term, ADC gave us a “project matrix” that looked like a to-do list of 85 tasks ranging from lawn mowing to acquiring property.

Limited participation from ADC’s Board of Directors compounds the corporation’s challenges. Board members receive no orientation or training and offer ADC’s management and staff little meaningful oversight or direction, primarily considering matters that the Executive Director chooses to bring before them or getting involved in day-to-day staff-level work. The Board has not set goals or performance measures for the Executive Director to fulfill and has not held him accountable for neglecting statutory requirements such as preparing the agribusiness plan or conducting market research.

We had difficulty pinpointing exactly why ADC struggles with managing the lands it has acquired since 2012, in part because the corporation’s recordkeeping and filing system are in disarray. Documents were piled under desks and kept wherever space allowed. Staff hastily assembled tenant files after we requested them, but the files they provided were disorganized and often missing important documents, such as board approvals, license agreements, and proof of insurance. When we requested documents we believed would be essential to the day-to-day operations of a corporation that manages land and properties – such things as land management policies, land acquisition guidelines, inventories of land holdings, tenant listings, and rent rolls – we were informed that the requested materials did not exist and would need to be assembled. ADC could not provide us with even baseline metrics of its land holdings and its management of those resources because they do not collect, track, and document such data. We had to create our own inventory of ADC’s lands and licenses issued for portions of larger parcels during the audit.

ADC also has not developed documented policies and procedures to guide its operations, which precluded us from assessing which, if any, part of a process may have failed. When we asked to review the corporation’s acquisition process, staff came up with a 10-step process on the spot, although, in practice, each of ADC’s purchases has been directed by the Legislature. The Executive Director told us that documented guidance would be “good to have” but he does not want to “get stuck with something in writing.” But operating without documentation, a formal plan or strategy, or board oversight, has resulted in a corporation that lacks a clear sense of direction and accountability.

Why do these problems matter?

The Legislature recognized the demise of Hawai‘i’s sugar and pineapple industry would create a significant loss to the state economy and had the foresight to identify the need for “aggressive and dynamic leadership” to develop an agricultural industry to fill that economic void. ADC was created to provide that leadership, to facilitate the development of Hawai‘i-based agricultural enterprises whose products are primarily for export, and to assist Hawai‘i-based agricultural enterprises with marketing and promotional strategies to exploit local, national, and international markets. ADC has not become the entity the Legislature envisioned – one that would develop an agriculture industry to stand as a pillar of the state economy, alongside tourism and the military. After nearly 30 years, the economic void created when plantations ceased production remains mostly unfilled.

The current pandemic has highlighted the necessity of having a diverse and well-balanced economy during difficult times. The spread of COVID-19 caused the State to restrict travel to Hawai‘i, virtually shuttering the tourism industry and disrupting the State’s economy. Large-scale agricultural enterprises whose crop productions are primarily for export would likely have lessened the economic blow while providing the State with greater food self-sustainability. The high cost the State has paid for ADC’s past inaction and its continued lack of direction, focus, and competence is immeasurable; the missed opportunities are unknowable. However, what is clear is that the State can no longer wait for ADC to figure out what it is, what it is supposed to do, and how it is supposed to do it.

READ: Full Report or Summary

Flashback Dec 19, 2019: State Agribusiness Dev Corp land a haven for criminal activity for years—ADC Spokesman: “We don’t want to do a sweep”

CB: Auditor: State Agriculture Agency Is Failing To Fulfill Mission

Join forum with leaders in agriculture and food policy innovation, Jan. 7, 2021

Ka Puna O Kaloʻi
By Zenaida Serrano Arvman –

The University of Hawaiʻi–West Oʻahu Sustainable Community Food Systems program is among the organizers of the Food+ Policy Landscape Update 2021, an online forum the public is welcome to attend from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 7.

The objective of the event is to enhance community awareness of and participation in public policy decision-making in Hawaiʻi that impacts food, agriculture, and public health.

Leaders on agriculture and food policy innovation will provide an assessment of the Hawaiʻi public policy landscape and updated information about key policy initiatives active this legislative session.

“There is growing popular awareness of food systems as key determinants of environmental quality, human health, and resilience,” said Albie Miles, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Community Food Systems at UH West Oʻahu. “At the same time, there are increased calls from the public and private sector for transforming elements of the food system of Hawaiʻi to achieve a new set of economic recovery, food security, natural resource management, and public health outcomes.”

The Food+ Policy Landscape Update 2021 is a convening of community and state leaders working on agriculture and food policy innovation at the state and county level, Miles said.

Forum participants include:

  • Claire Sullivan and Michelle Galimba, AgHui (Agriculture Response and Recovery Working Group)
  • Dexter Kishida, City and County of Honolulu Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resilience
  • Miwa Tamanaha, Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA)
  • Daniela Spoto, Hawaiʻi Appleseed
  • Amy Perruso, Hawaiʻi State Representative
  • David Lopez, Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency
  • Micah Munetaka, Ulupono Initiative
  • Hunter Heaivilin (Moderator), Food System Planner, Supersistence
  • In addition to UH West Oʻahu, event organizers include Hawaiʻi Alliance for Progressive Action and Purple Maiʻa.

Those interested in attending the public forum may register at: