By John Glenis

This Lunar New Year, a promising initiative brought together local farmers, restaurants and shops in a way that promotes quality, fairness and collaboration. Basically, a group of local farmers joined forces and started to grow radish in November, aiming to have their fresh produce ready for the New Year festivities. One part of this collaborative, synchronised effort was to directly supply restaurants, which in turn prepared radish cakes for the lunar season. The cakes then reached local shops which were responsible for promoting and selling the end product. The effort has been a success: the first round of pre-ordered cakes was quickly sold out.

Vegetables from a local farm in Sai Kung. Photo: John Glenis.

This project shows it is possible for tiny Hong Kong to rely less on imported food. Bearing in mind the government statistics, according to which 90 per cent of all food is imported, that is really saying something. The same government figures show a staggering dependence on Chinese farmland: 94 per cent of fresh pork, 100 per cent of fresh beef, 92 per cent of vegetables and 66 per cent of eggs in Hong Kong come from the mainland.

Regardless of the origin, it can be argued that such overwhelming reliance on “outside” food comes at a cost. The solution is not to stop imports; it is by definition impossible for Hong Kong to be self-reliant, and anyway its openness to the world makes this city what it is. The argument is that we have reached a point where it’s worth trying to strike some sort of balance.

Photo: @hkrobertgo, via Instagram.

Undoubtedly, when it comes to imports from massive producers, it is hard if not impossible for local farms to maintain competitive pricing. In the wet market you can easily get three baskets of monstrously overgrown vegetables for HK$10 or so. The question is, do we actually need that much? Or is it we are simply lured into buying something we don’t really need at a price we can’t really resist?

More importantly, we owe it to ourselves to think where, in what conditions and with what methods such vegetables are grown. Opting for quantity over quality can give us immediate and very tangible benefits but it may very well have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences, health-wise and market-wise. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that unnaturally oversized or suspiciously under-priced food could, in the long-term, have a negative impact on one’s health.

A shopper walks by shelves at Wellcome. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Market-wise, when our decisions are based mostly on cost-efficiency we might end up doing business with a market that has lost its moral compass. In his book What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel echoes exactly such concerns when he argues that “… market reasoning […] empties public life of moral argument.” Further into his book he again writes that “market reasoning is incomplete without moral reasoning.” In that sense, growing food locally seems a far better option when compared to a massive market operating almost exclusively on profit. Mark Boyle makes a similar point in his book The Moneyless Man:

It’s extremely difficult to make a profit from growing food organically, on a small scale, as supermarkets have completely altered what the public perceives to be a normal price. The few farmers that do are certainly not in it for the money, as there are much easier ways to make a living; most do it because they are passionate about growing chemical-free food in a way that respects the long-term health of the soil.

Imports present other challenges as well. First of all, some of the imported food is flown in on a regular basis. Considering that almost four million kg of food (90 per cent of which is imported) is wasted in Hong Kong every day, it is reasonable to assume that some of that food is flown in only to be thrown away. The result: waste of food, waste of fuel, waste of resources, unnecessary damage to the environment and a choking burden on already suffocating landfills.

By contrast, local farm products only have to go a short distance to reach the consumer. The obvious benefit here is freshness. Another advantage is the minimising of packaging and the amount of plastic needed: over 2,000 kg of plastic ends up in local landfills every day and a lot of it is somehow related to food packaging. Yet another benefit, and most important of all, is the purity of the final product itself as opposed to conventional produce which Boyle describes as “unhealthy […] given the amount of oil-based pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilisers sprayed on conventionally farmed fruit and vegetables.”

A landfill in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

On a different aspect, local farms can boost the local job market in the long term. More job opportunities within the community would mean a community that has more voice, more choice and a greater say in how things are or can be done. Consequently, a community that does not desperately depend on any single corporation or country.

Of course, farming alone is not nearly enough to give Hong Kong the financial stability it needs to protect its own people against major challenges. But the last two years have been nothing short of a relentless major challenge, so working out a way to stand on one’s own feet – or at the very least working out a contingency plan – seems a great idea. If other industries here follow the example of local farms and collaborate on the principle of fairness, reasonable profit and respect for both nature and consumers, the city need not depend almost exclusively on imports (especially say, during a pandemic) or worry about getting caught in the crossfire when superpowers lash out at each other.

Making the switch is far from easy. But the time has come to think in terms of sustainability rather than affordability. Obviously, changes of that magnitude cannot happen overnight, but collaborative initiatives at a local level are a good start. And well begun is half done.

John Glenis has been working in Hong Kong as a lecturer for the last ten years. His academic studies focus on linguistics, translation and lexicography. Over the years, he has particularly concentrated on the application of psychology and psycholinguistics in language acquisition and memory enhancement.

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