Rethink Hong Kong's food supply

Mayling Chan says Hong Kong needs to see beyond its fixable problem of food waste and rethink the city's food supply - and agricultural policy - to ensure security in times of crisis

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 4:05am

In Hong Kong, the problem of food waste has dominated our attention so much that we have almost forgotten about warnings of an impending food crisis and food security issues - such as families being able to meet even basic nutritional needs - that exist here and elsewhere in Asia.

Many children in Hong Kong believe their food originates from supermarkets, I have been told. A lack of understanding of how food is grown, harvested, processed and distributed means there is little appreciation of the skills and efforts of farmers and other food producers. In consequence, there's little concern about wasting food, both at home and in the food industry.

The problem of food wastage is compounded by climate change; more frequent natural disasters will affect the world's ability to feed a projected population of nine billion by 2050. At the Rio+20 earth summit and the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Vladivostok, world leaders pledged to eliminate food waste as an achievable solution to enhance their food security.

The scale of this problem in our city is substantial, with an average of 3,237 tonnes of food waste produced daily. That's 0.46kg per person per day. Compare that with South Koreans, who produce 0.3kg per person per day. Yet this waste is avoidable, provided supermarkets, restaurants, schools, fresh food markets and families all commit to prevent food losses at any point from "farm to fork".

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation meeting last year found that food losses in industrialised nations are as high as in developing countries. The difference is that, while more than 40 per cent of such losses in developing countries occur during post-harvest processing, in industrialised countries more than 40 per cent of the losses happen at the retail and consumer end of the food chain.

In our city, food is wasted at home when consumers buy more than they need; supplies are stored improperly; or there is confusion over "best before" and "use by" dates. In Hong Kong, supermarkets and shops try to create an image of "prosperity" and "freshness" by putting excessive amounts of produce on the shelves, which is more than they can sell.

Friends of the Earth (HK) estimated that the 650 outlets of the city's four main supermarkets together account for about 87 tonnes of food discarded daily. Action from the commercial sector could immediately avoid such a ridiculous amount of food ending up in landfills, and the surpluses could help support the poor, who are particularly vulnerable to price rises.

Further, discussions in Hong Kong now need to go beyond the issue of food waste, which could be fixed with a combination of effective policies, such as waste charging, and public education, including on corporate responsibility.

We also need to look at how the effects of climate change are likely to alter global agricultural production patterns, affecting crop yields. An unexpected global or regional crisis could prompt nations to ban food exports some day not too far in the future. A review of our food system, including the role of agriculture, is not just necessary but overdue.

Singapore has shown good governance in regard to the resilience of its food supply. After the global food crisis in 2008, it was determined to turn itself from a passive importer of food to an active contributor to hedge against volatile prices and supplies. It now aims to promote urban agriculture, turn Singapore into an agribusiness hub, and has set longer-term targets for increasing basic food items such as eggs, vegetables and fish. This entailed a fundamental rethink around an urban solution to food security.

These strategies could be a useful reference for Hong Kong, with its limited land availability. Perhaps it is time to review our reliance on the mainland for so much of our food. In 1968, we produced 48.7 per cent of our vegetables locally; by 1999, this had decreased to 11.7 per cent, and was down to an insignificant 2.3 per cent last year.

Some scholars believe we should strive for an adequate food supply to ensure more stable prices and tide Hong Kong over in case of shortages of basic food items, as can happen in times of political turmoil, disease outbreaks, contamination of crops and vegetables, and natural hazards.

The number of community organic farms has risen from only 10 in 1999 to more than 400 this year. According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, these include traditional farmers and operations run by groups and individuals for education and holidays. The number of market fairs - where people can buy local produce - is also growing.

Some, such as Fanling's Mapopo farm, integrate a centre of production, a food- waste-recycling collection point and a retail centre selling their produce. This also serves as a centre for cultural events and talks on community development of suburban areas. In fact, it provides a sustainable model of community- supported agriculture that builds relations between producers and consumers and nurtures the community.

On top of this, a sustainable food production system contributes to environmental conservation, which, in turn, ensures food safety.

This model has proved sound in the conservation of Long Valley, where wet rice farming and bio- diversity go hand in hand, and involve local farmers and community members.

On World Food Day today, everyone in Hong Kong should pledge to make every effort to enhance our food security by eliminating avoidable food losses and wasteful habits. More importantly, the government needs to rethink our agricultural policy to ensure a resilient food supply and emphasise local production and the local economy.

Mayling Chan is CEO of Friends of the Earth (HK).