The urban myth of organic food

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 9:54am

Did you hear the one about the Texan rancher who visits a Hong Kong farm? Having seen the size of the Hong Kong smallholding, he brags to the local farmer that it takes him three days to drive round his land. "Funny, I used to own a car like that," replies the local.

We have, the government says, more than 450 organic farms. But given our shortage of land, many of these must be the size of suburban back gardens in other countries. Given also that organic farms have famously small yields, you have to wonder what purpose they serve. Feeding the 5,000 might be a stretch.

Perhaps this speculation is missing the point, and the produce is so marvellous that it justifies the hobbyist farmers' use of the land space. Last Saturday, we decided to buy some produce from our nearest organic farm - a five minute hike away - and conduct some unscientific tests on the produce.

We started off buying some basil. At HK$10 for four stems, this was cheaper than buying from our local ParknShop. It made a great pesto, but was unremarkable in a tomato and cucumber salad. One-nil to the organic farmers? Not really. Later that day, we bought a basil plant for HK$25 that should carry on producing the herb for months.

Next up were cucumbers. One was a conventional salad cucumber, and the other a type we haven't seen before. Both ended up in a salad. We were happy we hadn't paid significantly more than for cukes at the supermarket. These were nice, but had no exceptional qualities.

Last was the ginger. This was zingy, and unlike the old tat often available in my locality, not totally fibrous. The stinger was that, at HK$40, the piece we bought cost double the supermarket price.

While the farm grows plenty of different crops and is arguably preserving bio-diversity, in quantities this small the claim is essentially meaningless.

Given that organic food has been shown to have no special nutritional value, that it may often involve the spraying of more chemicals than in conventional farming (organic pesticides may be less effective), and how overpriced the final product is, one has to ask what the point is?

Is this just an indulgence for urbanites unhappy with the hectic nature of modern life? The question is how, in a world with an expanding population, those whose job it is to produce food can think it is better to produce less and not more of it.