What Went Wrong with Hong Kong’s Food System?
Some of us like food more than others, but no one can deny that it’s a necessity. So, it’s bizarre how little time is spent understanding how food arrives on our tables. In an attempt to paint an overall picture, I’m going to present a series of figures about how much food we import, grow and waste in Hong Kong. Brace yourselves, because this picture ain’t pretty.
Around 90 per cent of the food we consume in Hong Kong is imported. When it comes to fresh food, the figures are even higher at around 95-99 per cent, with most of it coming from mainland China.
Due to climate change, China’s food production is projected to reduce by 5-10 per cent within the next two decades. In a country that is home to 20 per cent of the world’s population, this is a huge issue. When that time comes, the chances of sufficient stores of food coming to Hong Kong can only be described as slim.
In a presentation given at the Hong Kong Agricultural Forum on January 27 this year, Vicky Lau, executive secretary of Produce Green Foundation, told the audience that only 5.4 per cent of Hong Kong’s land (around 5100 hectares) is planned for agriculture, whereas Greater Paris, for example, has 52 per cent, Shanghai has 32.5 per cent and London has 8.6 per cent. Note that those 5100 hectares are planned – the reality is even more alarming, with a mere 734 hectares is currently being used as farmland.
Our reliance on imports and infinitesimal use of farmland means we’re not at all self-sufficient, and we are very vulnerable to price changes and other external risks. The volatility of exchange rates, in particular the rising renminbi, for example has led to an increase in price of even our most basic vegetables. In March 2012, the average wholesale price of choi sum leapt to HK$20.6 per catty due to bad weather in Ningxia, where most of the choi sum supplied to Hong Kong is grown, but in April of the same year, fell almost 90 per cent, to $2.30 per catty. (The price of local choi sum, in contrast, ranged from HK$3.60 to HK$8.30). Large fluctuations in price make budgeting and projections difficult, both for the home economist and professionals in the food and beverage industry.
Yet, each day, we send around 3500 tonnes of food waste to our landfills – that’s around 40 per cent of our total waste. We also already know that Hong Kong is running out of space for landfills.
So here’s the picture: we grow and farm very little, we buy a lot, and we waste far too much. Clearly, there are huge gaps in the system that need to be rectified for this city to continue running as it is.
There are multiple factors at play here, from land use policies to supply chains that, as individuals, are hard to change. But one thing is clear – as consumers, the food choices that we make on a daily basis will make a difference in how food is supplied and distributed.
If we buy from local farmers, we’re encouraging them to increase efficiency in growing and expand the land size of their farms.
If we make it a habit to order in eateries only what we can finish, there will be less waste.
If we asked our building managers to direct waste management dollars towards composting, less will be sent to landfills and what we throw out may become useful for farmers.
As an end user, each dollar you spend is a vote. Your vote affects what happens before and after that plate leaves your table.