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Then & now: the not-so-simple life

Urbanites may dream of swapping their desk for a well-furrowed field but Hong Kong can never be self sufficient in food, writes Jason Wordie

 

Throughout the world, affluent, highly urbanised advocates for simple lifestyles intermittently promote a return to some imagined rural idyll; an earlier, kinder world far removed from the stresses of modern life. Hong Kong is no exception; the city's modern-day Marie Antoinettes happily romp in their own frighteningly detached version of the Petit Trianon and - much like that doomed, tragic queen - remain oblivious to the steadily gathering storm of resentment that - sooner or later - will sweep off their heads.

Sporadic concerns about Hong Kong's food security appear and occasional suggestions are made about ways in which more produce can be grown locally.

So far, so well-meaning, but the historical fact remains unyielding; Hong Kong has been a net importer of all food staples since the late 19th century. When the Japanese occupation ended, in 1945, the population was about half a million strong. Even this number required far more staple items than local food production could guarantee, and at a time when the New Territories was overwhelmingly rural, large areas of farmland existed and coastal fisheries had not been overexploited into oblivion. Most importantly, this level of food security was unattainable during a period when the vast majority consumed a daily diet dramatically more basic than even the poorest contemporary Hong Kong residents would consider acceptable. And Hong Kong's population now exceeds seven million.

Fundamentally "lifestyle" driven, "organic", "free-range" products are priced at a prem-ium to goods that are basically the same item. Local organic farms downplay the fact that chronic air pollution has both long- and short-term negative effects on plant as well as human and animal health. Airborne toxins lodge in plant tissue and then - depending on the chemical - are transmitted into the animal (or human) that consumes that food. Berries - strawberries in particular - are tremendous pesticide absorbers. Intellectual consistency and food fads seldom coincide. Few consumers who fuss about "free-range" this and "certified organic" that acknowledge the fact that the high-priced, "boutique vintage" wines they consume are laden with pesticide residues.

Historically, Chinese farming methods relied on human excrement-based fertiliser. Urine and faeces were matured in large earthenware tubs; when nearly full, the containers' pungent contents were stirred up, which resulted in the local term "honey pots" - partly for the colour and consistency and also because of the swarms of flies that inevitably gathered. The tubs were then sealed with paper, which discouraged flies, stifled the stench and allowed heat to build up, which, in turn, destroyed most harmful bacteria. After some months, when the contents were suitably mature, the seals were broken and the resultant slurry stirred up again, heavily diluted with water and used as a crop fertiliser.

As any local gardener knows, fish-emulsion-based fertilisers give the best results, but do tend to stink up the surrounding areas, much as the "great fertiliser" did in earlier times.

Establishing an "organic farm" also offers a benign-sounding redevelopment shortcut for farmland abandoned when commercial agriculture declined 40 years ago. Disused paddy fields within country-park enclaves, which eventually became substantial wildlife habitats, are drained for "sustainable farming" initiatives. A few fruit trees and rice terraces are planted out to look like something serious is being attempted, but when this exercise (inevitably) fails, well, hey - some more village housing can now be built, as any environmental value no longer exists.

 

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