The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Eating Sustainably, Mission Impossible?

by Christopher Shay

The idea of eating local and organic food has gone mainstream in the United States. But in Hong Kong, where most food is imported and agriculture space is limited, the sustainable-food movement has struggled to gain momentum.

Of the 775 acres of land in Hong Kong that are devoted to agriculture, about 10% is organic, according to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD). The number of organic farms in Hong Kong rose to 331 from 10 in the past decade, but the output is still small: More than 97.6% of Hong Kong’s vegetables were imported last year. That goes against the sustainable-food movement’s premise of eating homegrown and chemical-free foods.

“Hong Kong has always been dependent on food from abroad,” said Pui-Kwan Chu, chairwoman of Sustainable Ecological Ethical Development Foundation (SEED), who also runs a small organic farm.

That dependency likely won’t change. Much of Hong Kong is undeveloped land but the city’s steep hillsides have limited its ability to significantly expand its agriculture sector. Most meat and produce is sourced from mainland China, according the government. The Hong Kong government says its farms can’t challenge the  large-scale, industrial ones in mainland China.

“Local production is geared to complement rather than compete with other major market suppliers,” says Diana Wong at the AFCD.

That’s not to say interest in local and organic food hasn’t grown. Grocery stores have incorporated organic produce sections and locally sourced restaurants and stores are sprouting up throughout the city. Ms. Chu says that 10 years ago she struggled to find people interested in paying a premium for her organic produce. “But now I have people calling me all time,” she says. “I just don’t have the supply.”

Todd Darling opened his restaurant Posto Pubblico in Soho a year ago. He uses all locally sourced organic fruits and vegetables and recently started a local organic-produce home-delivery service. The restaurant has been such a hit, Mr. Darling says, that he plans to open two more restaurants that rely heavily on local ingredients.

As organic food gains prominence in stores and restaurants, Mr. Darling says, each vendor raises awareness and “helps to create a tipping point” where the use of local ingredients becomes more mainstream.

Hong Kong farmers rely on an independent certification body run by Baptist University—the Hong Kong Organic Research Centre—to define and determine what counts as organic. For a farm to receive an organic certification, at least 95% of its product has to meet certain standards. The farms also have to prove they have taken measures to prevent soil erosion and ensure nutrients are returned to the soil.

Imported organic food doesn’t have to meet those exact standards, meaning an organic pear from abroad may have passed a slightly different criteria. In the United States, however, the Department of Agriculture mandates that imported food meet its own organic-certification standards, which include the requirement that produce also be at least 95% organic.

But eating imported organic food isn’t entirely environmentally friendly. The environmental cost of shipping the food can outweigh its eco-friendly production. With Hong Kong’s limited supply of both organic and locally sourced food, it’s a dilemma Mr. Darling has faced before: Buy organic from afar or nonorganic locally?

Mr. Darling says there’s no right answer. For Post Pubblico’s poultry, he has been unable to find free-range, organic-fed chicken in the region. He decided to use a local provider rather than import from thousands of miles away—but only after he visited the local farm and saw that the chickens were treated well and were hormone-free.

“You have to weigh the costs and benefits of every decision,” Mr. Darling says.

In the end, he says it often comes down to taste. One organic lemon, he says, is more powerful than 10 industrially grown lemons, while other conventional food “all tastes the same.”

Eating Local

-Community Gardens: The Sustainable Ecological Ethical Development Foundation (SEED) has been running organic-farming classes since 2003. It maintains a 20,000 square-foot organic community garden in the New Territories where people can grow their own produce. The government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department has also established 20 community gardens around Hong Kong.

-Farmers’ Markets: Hong Kong has four major weekly farmers’ markets. SEED runs one market at the Central Star Ferry Pier No. 7 from noon to 6 p.m. every Wednesday; Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden runs a market on Sundays at the same location from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. A Tai Po farmers’ market runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Sunday, and Tuen Mun has a Saturday market from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

-Delivery Services: Homegrown Foods, Mr. Darling’s organic-food delivery program, sources from more than 20 nearby farms to make weekly deliveries of freshly picked fruits and vegetables. A delivery of one basket meant to feed two or three people for three days costs $298 Hong Kong dollars (US$38), or baskets can be picked up at Posto Pubblico in SoHo or in Clearwater Bay at a HK$30 discount. The Local Organic Vegetable Express (LOVE) partners with SEED to deliver local, organic produce. LOVE has a minimum monthly subscription of HK$500 and HK$100 annual membership fee.

Category: Article, Environment, Health

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