HK's organic farmers reaping the spoils from food-safety scandals

HONG KONG - From expired meat in fast food and melamine-laced milk formula to recycled "gutter oil" and heavy pesticide use: The series of food scandals emanating from China seems far from abating.

It has made Hong Kong residents rethink the way they shop for groceries.

"When food safety in mainland China or even other places is not that good, then Hong Kong people will choose foods that are safer," said Kan Wai Hong, a member of a new wave of rice farmers in the city's New Territories.

He and his fellow farmers now produce around three tonnes of rice a year near the border with Hong Kong's biggest food supplier - mainland China.

"The trend of society has changed - people have become more affluent and they care more about food safety - so more people have come into contact with these products," explained Mr Kan, a former supermarket supervisor, of the more expensive organic fare.

The former British colony imports nearly all of its food with just 2 per cent of its vegetables locally grown.

But the number of organic-style vegetable farms has increased from a handful of trailblazers in the 1990s to several hundred today - of which 130 are certified as fully organic.

While organic vegetables are still flown into the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city, the homegrown variety now make up 12 per cent of the 45 tonnes of vegetables the city produces daily.

Shoppers are shrugging off the fact that they cost more than their mass-produced counterparts. "After learning that there are quite a lot of different kinds of pesticides or different ways of growing the plants, I think it's better to have the organic ones," Jenny Ho told AFP while browsing one of several weekly organic markets.

"(The food) from Hong Kong does not have to travel as far and is fresher and more delicious as a result."

By 1980, 40 per cent of farmland in Hong Kong was reported as abandoned and rice paddies made up less than 1 per cent of what was in use. Today, a total of just 7 sq km is actively farmed.

While the government provides no farming subsidies, it has encouraged farmers to convert to organic farming and provides technical support.

But shrinking farmland, also eyed by property developers, is often limited to small plots on short-term leases in the space-challenged city, which is also home to rooftop vegetable gardens and vertical fish farms.

Farmer Thomas Fung lives in Hong Kong's skyscraper sprawl and commutes to his New Territories patchwork of plots, rented from six different landlords on leases ranging from two to five years.

It means even more pressure for the farmers, but those prepared to go organic to meet the city's changing tastes acknowledge that the fears play to their favour.

 

"People are quite afraid of the quality of mainland China veggies, so the demand is very, very big in Hong Kong," said Mr Fung, one of the city's self-claimed organic farmers.

Wong Yu Wing, whose nearby family farm is one of the largest to be fully certified, agreed.

"Organic planting is much more better than the traditional method because Hong Kong people are looking for organic vegetables - fresh, planted in Hong Kong - so we have a big market."


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