How does a city feed its 7.3 million people? Hong Kong is not particularly known for its food production. Hong Kong’s population of farmers, and thus the agriculture sector, has steadily declined since the 1970s. Up until the 1980s, Hong Kong still produced around 35% of its fresh vegetable consumption, but it has dropped to single digits since the 2000s. As of 2010, 90% of the total food supply in Hong Kong is imported. (1)
The drastic shift in food consumption patterns in the 1980s can be attributed to the intensive urbanization and industrialization undergone. As manufacturing factories relocated to Mainland China, the secondary industry in Hong Kong slowly diminished and shifted towards the service industry. Hong Kong people take pride in the variety of food that can be easily accessible in the city: ranging from Japanese and Korean fruits, European hams and cheese, to chicken and beef from South America. We are spoiled by the world’s cuisines all at our table and take imported food for granted, while there’s much more to imported food than you think.
Most of the problems with Hong Kong’s food consumption habits, like the rest of the world, stem from the destructive but powerful industrial agriculture. This practice of intensive farming of animals and crops requires biodiversity clearance. Soil and plants lose their role of being vital storages of carbon — “carbon sinks”. These pieces of lands are often replaced with large-scale monoculture - dedicating huge areas of land to a single crop. This depletes soil and the nutrients in it at unsustainable rates, leading to the need for heavy application of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and even genetically modified crops. An IPCC report from 2019 revealed that emissions from land use, largely agriculture, forestry and land clearing, make up some 22% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. If the the entire food chain is counted (including fertiliser, transport, processing, and sale), this contribution goes up to 29%.
Land clearing in Queensland, Australia. Kerry Trapnell/The Wilderness Society
When it comes to Hong Kong, the most obvious problem is our dependence on imported foods. With over 90% of our food supply being imported, our food miles -- the distance that our food travels from the manufacturing point to the end user, can't be low. The energy and resources that go into transporting these foods are all extra costs that we bear when we purchase imported foods. As an example, the agriculture sector uses 21% percent of the total energy use of food production in the USA, which includes the growth and cultivation of crops. Among this, 60% of the energy is directly consumed in the use of fossil fuels. Agriculture in the USA consumes roughly 2.1 quadrillion Btu of energy each year, enough to power the entire country of Norway. Our high dependency on foreign food imports implies that we are offsetting these extra costs to other countries. It also means that when any emergency comes up and affects international trades, e.g. a global pandemic, we have little control over our food sovereignty and autonomy.
At the end of the day, it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s true that “every purchase we make is a chance to vote with our wallets.” For those who can afford it, we can buy from local, organic farms, be aware of our food miles, GMOs and pesticides. We still have to acknowledge the fact that 90% of our food is imported, and this will probably take some time to change. In the meantime, we can educate our family and peers on this topic. Do we truly know the food we are putting into our mouths?
Under the pandemic, there has been a small surge of interest in local organic vegetables in 2020. (2) Some say that it could be attributed to Hongkongers acknowledging the problem of food security and local provision of food, it could also be that people have become generally more accepting towards exploring new habits. This has given some local farmers confidence in expanding their businesses and training new blood to revive local agriculture. As with many other environmental issues, the pandemic has given us time and space to reflect on our living patterns that we take for granted, and given us a glimpse of light in solving these issues.
1 Frequently Asked Questions on Food Supply of Hong Kong. https://www.fhb.gov.hk/download/press_and_publications/otherinfo/110318_food_supply_faq/e_food_supply_faq.pdf.
2 “本地菜近期供不應求 菜農倡珍惜本地農業資源.” 大紀元時報, 17 Feb. 2020, https://hk.epochtimes.com/news/2020-02-17/7071477?fbclid=IwAR2fBlyeYn0MzBfPne2qazq4-kvWkUo-iXDzTNIzS_xKALcPE-farRdh-YQ.