China wants clean food!

Increasing amount of people in Hong Kong want to eat clean, organic food. And the trend is similar in Mainland China. 

“Today a third of the seven million people in Hong Kong buy organic food at least once a week”, Doctor of Social Sciences (Political Science) Riina Yrjölä writes in her column. Yrjölä has lived in Hong Kong for many years and she observes the Chinese way of life closely every day.                                                                                                      

Until late 1960s, agriculture used to be a vital industry in Hong Kong. However, vegetables imported from the Mainland China soon took over due to their competitive prices, prompting a decline in Hong Kong’s once-vibrant agricultural scene. Nevertheless, until 1980s locally produced vegetables constituted up to one-third of the Hong Kong’s supply. Since then, however, most of Hong China wants clean foodKong’s 14,000 acres of farmland has been subject to development, speculation and abandonment – converted to open area container yards, while awaiting a more profitable change of landuse. Not surprisingly, having had the lowest priority in Hong Kong government’s development plan for decades – today no more than 4,523ha of agricultural farmland remains. Of this only 729 hectares is actively cultivated.

Today in Hong Kong there are estimated 1900 vegetable farms of which 285 (15%) are organic. With the average farm size of only 0,2ha these small farms produce 2,3% of all vegetables consumed in Hong Kong. However with growing awareness of the concepts of land conservation and green living, increasing calls to revive agriculture in Hong Kong have emerged in aim to reduce city’s reliance on imported food whilst meeting consumers’ aspiration and demand for food with high safety standard.

Against this backdrop, the Hong Kong government produced a draft agricultural policy and launched a three-month public consultation exercise in Spring 2015. Drawing experience from other urbanized economies, such as Singapore and London, among the government’s highlights was the idea of setting up a 70 to 80-hectare agricultural park to promote cutting-edge agricultural techniques and provide farmers with infrastructure support and technological training.China wants clean food

The vision of modernity is however a far cry from the 285 organic farms and several environmental NGOs operating in Hong Kong. As Green Power, a local environmental NGO argues, it is over-simplified and unrealistic to consider agriculture’s function solely in economic terms. In short, modernization does not equivalent to sustainability. Nor is it s the only option for advancing agriculture in Hong Kong. Hence, rather than proposed industrial agriculture the goal should be set to encompassing proactive support to sustainable agriculture and maximising the contribution of the food system to the well-being of the present and future generations in Hong Kong.

The general public seems to agree: the appeal for sustainable and organic local food has increased considerably in the past years. According to the Hong Kong Organic Resource Center, today a third of the 7 million people in Hong Kong now buy organic food at least once a week. To meet rising demand, local output of organic vegetables has risen two-thirds in five years, to 5 metric tons per day. Today, over 300 outlets carry organic foods, including upscale grocers, supermarket chains, fresh-food markets and small retailers.

China wants clean foodSimilar trend can be also seen in Mainland China where the organic food market has tripled since 2007 and currently account for 1.01 percent of total food consumption. However, it is estimated that in the next decade, China will become the fourth largest consumer of organic food in the world.

In a consumer study carried out in June 2015, 71 percent of Chinese consumers were ready to pay a premium of 20 to 50 percent for organic products. The top five reasons for buying organic were all related to food quality assurance. In fact, as Wal-mart’s China-based chief compliance officer Rob Chester has argued, China is the only country where food safety is given more prevalence and consideration than price. Not surprisingly – June 2014, a national five-year soil survey revealed that up to 40 percent of rivers and 20 percent of land in China is polluted. It seems that ChineseChina wants clean food consumers are all too aware of these harrowing facts, driving their preference for organic products that are perceived to better meet quality requirements.

It seems that locally grown organic food in China is steadily moving from trendy to the mainstream. And it is truly here to stay.

Riina Yrjölä, Doctor of Social Sciences (Political Science), Hong Kong

Pictures: Riina Yrjölä

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