Good earth - SCMP

Feini Tuang urges reconsideration of our policy of treating farmland as a resource for building rather than for growing food, thereby missing an opportunity to practise more sustainable living

By Feini Tuang

Hong Kong has an ecological footprint that is 150 times greater than its carrying capacity.

Hong Kong has an ecological footprint that is 150 times greater than its carrying capacity.

Hong Kong has long branded itself "Asia's world city", with some justification. It was ranked first in Ernst and Young's 2012 Globalisation Index, and leads the world in the trend towards greater integration of goods and services, technology and capital.

Its resource consumption is equally globalised. With an ecological footprint 150 times greater than its carrying capacity, it is essentially living off the natural resources of other countries. But if everyone in the world were to lead the same lifestyle, we would need the equivalent of 2.6 earths to meet our needs.

This ecological overshoot is a result of the belief that, in a globalised world, we can always import our resources, including food, energy and materials, from somewhere else at low cost. Yet, in the reality of a resource-constrained world, cities such as Hong Kong must start looking inwards and asking what it means to be sustainable.

The single largest factor in Hong Kong's consumption footprint is the household consumption of its 7.2 million residents, which accounts for 78 per cent of the total. Within household consumption, food accounts for 23 per cent of the total, and is the second-largest factor after goods and services.

With the decline of local agriculture, Hong Kong now relies heavily on imported food, especially from mainland China. As recently as the 1970s, Hong Kong, with a population of four million, was still able to meet 82 per cent of its vegetable demand through local sources. In 2011, that figure was 2.3 per cent.

Hong Kong's departure from its agricultural roots has been startling. The amount of agricultural land has dropped from 13,000 hectares in 1961 to 5,100 hectares in 2011, or about 5 per cent of total land area. Unusually for a Chinese city, Hong Kong has had no policy to promote local production of food since the handover.

Instead, it relies heavily on production bases on the mainland that supply fresh produce exclusively. Agricultural land in Hong Kong is today often seen as a reserve to be developed by private companies, which have been consolidating their holdings since the 1990s.

More than 4,000 hectares of agricultural land are now in the hands of developers and are therefore left idle, leaving less than 800 hectares actually in use for cultivation.

The question that must be answered is whether this is the right direction for Hong Kong. At a time when sustainability and food security have become pressing issues, the controversial northeastern New Territories development areas will result in the closure of some 10 per cent of the remaining vegetable farms, most of which have been in operation for over a century.

Should agriculture continue to give way to property development?

The noted environmentalist, Vandana Shiva, called "creating, conserving, rejuvenating" fertile and living soil "the most important objective of civilisation". "Living seeds and living soils are the foundation of living and lasting societies," she said.

So, instead of commoditising land, the government should perhaps repurchase the more than 4,000 hectares owned by developers and promote community-based agriculture by putting it back in the hands of farmers.

This alone could meet well over a quarter of Hong Kong's demand for vegetables, reducing its ecological footprint that results from importing so much food. Done well, on the right scale, it would also create considerable employment locally.

Reintegrating agriculture into Hong Kong society is more than just a pipe dream. It has already been done on a piecemeal basis. The Mapopo community farm in Fanling, together with many other farms scattered around the New Territories, are already practising sustainable farming at the fringes of Hong Kong's urban sprawl.

They produce organic vegetables, recycle food waste from surrounding communities, train aspiring farmers and organise farmers' markets, guided tours and various activities to bring the urban community closer to the land, an opportunity that is sorely lacking in Hong Kong.

This last point, in particular, should not be underestimated if Hong Kong seeks to create a world-class city that people want to live in and move to.

Hong Kong needs a policy to support farmers and further develop its agriculture. This would help reduce its ecological footprint and contribute to the well-being of its citizens, making Hong Kong a truly sustainable world city.

If it wishes to continue to deserve its moniker of Asia's world city, it should start by setting an example of urban-rural integration for cities both in China and the rest of the world.

Feini Tuang is senior researcher at the Global Institute For Tomorrow

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Good earth