Food for thought – Hong Kong’s globalised ecological footprint

07 July, 2014


By Feini Tuang

Hong Kong has long branded itself Asia’s world city, with some justification. It was ranked first in Ernst and Young’s 2012 Globalization Index and is leading the world in the trend towards globalization.[1] Hong Kong’s resource consumption is equally globalized. With an ecological footprint 150 times greater than its carrying capacity, it is essentially living off the natural resources of other countries.[2] But if everyone in the world was to lead the same lifestyle as Hong Kongers, we would need the equivalent of 2.6 Earths to meet our needs. This ecological overshoot is a result of the belief in that in a globalized world, we can always source our resources including food, energy and materials from somewhere else with low costs. But in our reality of a resource constrained world cities such as Hong Kong must start looking inwards and asking what it means to be a sustainable city.

The single largest factor in Hong Kong’s consumption footprint is the household consumption of its 7.2 million residents, which accounts for 78 percent of the total. Within household consumption, food is the largest factor, accounting for 23 percent. With the decline of local agriculture, Hong Kong now relies heavily on imported food, especially from China. But as recently as the 1970s, Hong Kong, with a population 4 million people, was still able to meet 82 percent of its vegetable demand through local sources. In 2011 that figure was 2.3 percent.

Hong Kong’s departure from its agriculture roots has been startling. Agriculture land has gone from 13,000 hectares in 1961 to 5,100 hectares in 2011, or 5 percent of total land area. Unusually for a Chinese city, Hong Kong has had no policy to promote the local production of food since the handover. Instead it relies heavily on production bases in China that supply fresh produce exclusively to it. In Hong Kong on the other hand, agricultural land is often seen as a reserve to be developed by private developers, who have been consolidating their holdings since the 1990s. Over 4000 hectares of agricultural land are now in the hand of developers and are therefore left barren, leaving less than 800 hectares actually in use for cultivation.

The question that must be answered is whether Hong Kong is moving in the right direction. At a time when sustainability and food security have becoming pressing issues, the controversial North East New Territories New Development Areas will result in the closure of 10 percent of the remaining vegetable farms in Hong Kong, most of which have been in cultivation for over a century. Should agriculture continue to give way to property development?

Noted environmentalist Vandana Shiva has said that “land is not a commodity. Creating, conserving, rejuvenating, fertile and living soil is the most important objective of civilisation. Living seeds and living soils are the foundation of living and lasting societies.”

So perhaps instead of commoditising land and leaving the fate of Hong Kong agriculture in the hands of property developers, it would be more farsighted for the government to repurchase the over 4000 hectares of agriculture land owned by developers and promote community based agriculture by putting them in the hands of farmers. This alone could meet well over a quarter of Hong Kong’s vegetable demand, reducing its ecological footprint resulted from food import. Done well at scale, it would also create considerable employment locally.

Reintegrating agriculture into Hong Kong society is more than a pipe dream. It has already been done on a piecemeal basis. The MaPoPo community farm in Masipo as well as many other farms scattered around New Territories are already practicing 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 other activities to bring the urban community closer to the land, an opportunity 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 emigrate to.

Hong Kong needs a policy to support the farmers and further develop its agricultural industry. This will help reduces its ecological footprint and contributing to the well-being of its citizens, making Hong Kong a truly sustainable world city. If Hong Kong 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 world.