Soil Matters!

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By Kristian Johnson. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Kristian is preparing for a career in agriculture and forestry. He is currently undertaking an internship at Wildroots Organic Farm. His goal is to help conserve forests through sustainable farming practices.  

In Hong Kong, it’s easy to forgive the impression that we have transitioned to a post-soil society, where with enough concrete and wifi all of our needs can be met. We aren’t there yet and never will be, as soil is an irresistibly efficient way of providing nutrients for food crops to grow. It is the most valuable asset of a farm. Before we get the chance to finally appreciate soil, it may soon disappear. Agronomists predict that within 60 years global soil systems will be irreparably degraded.

Soil is a simple word that describes a complex ecosystem consisting of five essential components. Much of soil is a combination of minerals essential for plant health. Organic matter is made up of plant and animal remains that have been broken down by microorganisms, such as fungi and bacteria. Microorganisms are nature’s diligent nutrient recyclers. Soil needs to be loose to allow gases (oxygen, carbon dioxide) that are essential to the life processes of microorganisms and roots to circulate. Finally, water dissolves and transports nutrients to plant roots. Ideally, all five components are present in relative abundance. Soil composition and quality can vary widely, which is why organic farmers add compost and organic fertilisers to soil.

It may be tempting to grow crops without soil by using water-based hydroponic systems. These systems however have significant drawbacks. First, they can only provide for a fraction of our food needs. They are unable to grow large quantities grain such as rice, wheat, soya and corn that account for 60% of our diet (much of this is fed to the animals we eat). Second, they are capital and energy intensive, making them uneconomical except in circumstances where there is an abundance of both and a shortage of arable land (such as the Middle East).

In contrast, the vast majority of farmers are armed simply with a handful of seeds, a hoe, and a patch of earth. Even without additional inputs, healthy soil can contain many of the nutrients a plant needs to grow (such as calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc, sulfur, copper, maganese). Humans also require these minerals but do not have the capacity to absorb them directly from the soil. Instead, we rely on plants to process the laundry list of minerals and repackage them into edible leaves, roots, seeds and fruits. It follows that the health of the soil dictates the amount of nutrients we derive from the plants we eat.

A thriving soil ecosystem means healthy, nutritious crops and a productive farm. Maintenance of a farm’s soil however is often neglected. For example, many farmers in colder climates leave their fields bare over the winter. Unprotected from the elements, the topsoil erodes, severely reducing the amount of organic matter and microorganisms. Conventional farmers also use synthetic fertilisers that pollute the soil with caustic salts, killing microorganisms and ultimately disrupting the ability of crops to absorb nutrients.

Worldwide, 70% of topsoil is severely degraded. In China 19.4% of soil is contaminated with heavy metals from industrial pollution. Organic matter is being lost 40 times faster than it is being added. In Hong Kong, misguided government policy is irreversibly damaging valuable soil through rampant development. Construction causes soil compaction that destroys its agricultural value. Food waste is thrown food into landfills instead of recycled into valuable plant nutrients and organic matter.

The destruction of this crucial resource is not inevitable. We can choose to:

  • Compost food waste to increase organic matter in the soil
  • Support eco-friendly local farms by buying their produce
  • Enforce zoning laws by reporting illegal construction and waste dumping
  • Lobby the government to end the import of unsafe vegetables grown with excessive synthetic fertilisers and pesticides that damage the soil

Farming in the Summer

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Amaranth or Yin Choi

By Kristian Johnson. A recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Kristian is preparing for a career in agriculture and forestry. He is currently undertaking an internship at Wildroots Organic Farm. His goal is to help conserve forests through sustainable farming practices.  

It’s easy to condemn the use of synthetic fungicides, insecticides and herbicides by conventional farmers. They, however, are at the mercy of conditions over which they have little to no control. These unsafe toxic compounds provide effective solutions for plant diseases, insect attacks, and weed infestations. Conventional farmers tend to overuse these cheap chemical tools, rather than risk suffering a poor harvest.

An organic farmer, without these potent tools, must instead rely on a deep understanding of the land and the lifecycles of common pests, as well as the characteristics of various plant species. Before deciding what to grow, every farmer must take into account the growing conditions of the upcoming season. Here are some of the challenges of growing in the Hong Kong summer.

Heavy rains (Avg. May to Sept. is 379 mm per month)

Too much water will cause rooting (carrots, radish) and fruiting (tomato) vegetables to crack and also lose much of their flavor. The high clay content prevalent in Hong Kong soils often makes drainage difficult, thereby causing the roots of many plants to die off.

Punishing humidity (Avg. May to Sept. is 81%)

High humidity makes it difficult for many plants to transpire thereby significantly reducing the growth rate of temperate climate species, such as lettuce or spinach. Coupled with warm temperatures, it increases the chances of fungal diseases especially for plants such as zucchini.

High temperatures (Avg. May to Sept. is 28 C)

Plants ill-suited to high temperatures, such as lettuce, wilt or become bitter in summer. Most temperate climate herbs, such as mint or lemon balm, become dormant.

High temperatures also result in prolific weed growth. Competing for sunlight and nutrients, weeds are one of the biggest threats to yield. The Japanese Knotweed is a pernicious invasive species common in Hong Kong. It thrives in warm weather, and has a deep, dense network of rhizomes that spread both vertically (2m deep) and horizontally effectively choking any competition. Removal is nearly impossible as small rhizome fragments can sprout new growth even after 3 years. On organic farms, countless hours are spent manually removing weeds.

Summer temperatures mean there are significantly more harmful insects such as melon flies, flea beetles, and aphids. As consumers, we can select vegetables that grow well during the season, thereby helping conventional farmers reduce their reliance on chemical pesticides. This also ensures we ingest fewer harmful toxic chemicals into our bodies. Here are some of the highly nutritious vegetables that grow well during Hong Kong summers:

  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Yardlong beans
  • Amaranth
  • Ceylon spinach
  • Morning glory
  • Sweet potato leaf
  • Sweet corn
  • Okra

Hydroponics and Property Development

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July 2014. A Hydroponic facility under construction near Hok Tau. Turning green into desert.  

Hydroponic systems are touted by their promoters for safety and high yield. They claim hydroponically grown produce is safe from pollution because the vegetables are entirely detached from the ground. They also claim to be free of pesticides because hydroponic systems are usually housed in enclosed structures that keep pests out. According to it’s proponents, the high yield makes it suitable for a space-deprived Hong Kong.

Agriculture is an industry that exists within our economic system. As such, the laws of economics must apply to it. The law of comparative advantage, familiar to any first year economics student, states that we should specialise in areas where we have an advantage and trade with others for goods in areas where we do not. Both parties to the trade will end up better off.

Large-scale hydroponic systems were developed by the US military in the 1950’s to supply fresh vegetables to soldiers stationed on remote islands. The remoteness of the islands made the transport of fresh food costly and difficult. The barren soil made it unsuitable for growing on the land. Hydroponic facilities are factories that can produce “safe” vegetables anywhere, irregardless of the surrounding environment.

If hydroponic factories are completely safe because they are detached from the land then it doesn’t matter where they are located. The only requirements are land, labor and sources of water and electricity. Land, labor and water are significantly cheaper one hour away, in Shenzhen. If land and labor in Shenzhen are 1/3 to 1/4 the cost of that in Hong Kong, then a hydroponic facility in Hong Kong would be at a huge comparative disadvantage. The same “safe” vegetables could be produced in Shenzhen at a fraction of the cost. (It is for this reason, the law of comparative advantage, that all clothing factories have long since moved from Hong Kong to China.)

Since any first year economics student could arrive at this conclusion, might there be another reason why savvy businessmen (the owner of the facility in the photo above is the former CEO of Esprit, whose clothing factories are located in China) and highly educated bureaucrats are furiously promoting hydroponics? Continue reading

Electronic Waste Recycling

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Editor’s Note:

British Columbia (BC) is a top destination for Hong Kong and mainland Chinese tourists and emigrants. Like Hong Kong, it has uniquely beautiful landscapes with both ocean and mountain views. What makes it different from Hong Kong though, is the willingness of its people to both enact policies and pay the cost required to maintain this pristine environment. Since all Chinese can’t emigrate to Vancouver (no matter how furiously they try), can we instead learn from their experience to improve our own polluted environment?

This article was contributed by Eveline, an environmental specialist based in Vancouver, BC.

The Electronic Recycling Programs in BC

Since 2007, consumers in BC have paid eco fees (green levies) to fund the proper disposal of electronic waste. BC has been at the forefront of this fight in North America with over 15 programs in total and counting – recycling everything from smoke alarms to TVs to fluorescent lights. These programs are fully run by the manufacturers or importers of these goods in BC and funded by eco fees paid at the point of purchase. The eco fees cover the cost of collection, transportation and safe disposal as well as associated administrative costs.

These policies are based on the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility, developed by Swedish economics professor Thomas Lindhqvist. It states that (a) a manufacturer’s responsibility includes taking back the broken products they produce and (b) the environmental cost of production and disposal must be included in a product’s total life-cycle cost. It has been implemented by governments worldwide as the way to best manage waste from manufactured goods.

What happens to the used electronic products after I recycle it?

After paying an eco fee upon purchase, you can drop the product off, free of charge, at designated recycling facilities located all over the city. The device is then sorted and dismantled into its various parts. Machines separate out the various metals, which are then melted down and shipped out to be turned into new products. Plastic and glass are also sold to be turned into new products.  Rare elements like lithium and mercury are also removed and re-introduced into the supply chain to make new products. Any money earned is returned to fund the recycling program. Continue reading

Agri-Park

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Here is our analysis of the new Agricultural Policy issued by the Hong Kong government.

The Pantheon 

The government is proposing to spend HKD 7 billion to encourage the development and growth of the agriculture sector by establishing a 80 hectare “Agri-Park”. While this is all well and good, the first question we must ask is: what is the governments track record in nurturing sectors other than real estate? The Pantheon of government schemes that produce nothing (other than taxpayer funded or subsidised construction projects) includes: the Science Park, the EcoPark, a CyberPort, an Innocentre and numerous others.

No Pain No Gain

The government will acquire privately-owned agricultural land (including land within the country park zone) from landowners to build the Agri-Park. In a market economy, when supply is fixed and demand increases (due to the government entering the market as a large buyer), prices will rise. The resulting increase in land rental cost will in effect be detrimental to existing farmers. This scheme will hurt the farmers that it is purportedly trying to help.

In this case the pain will be borne by the farmers and gain will be reaped by the construction industry, landowners and bureaucrats.

Innovative Bureaucrats: An Oxymoron 

A farmer’s investment is largely comprised of his time and effort in improving the land. Through weeding, cultivation, and enrichment of the soil a farmer creates an environment optimal for plant growth. Unlike a software company incubated in a technology park, the farmer cannot simply move. This scheme can only have been thought up by “innovative” bureaucrats whose experience of farming consists largely of playing FarmVille. Continue reading

Cancer and Food

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Can you guess which one is organic? Read on to find out

Many people exhibit a sudden interest in organic food when they or someone in their family has been afflicted with cancer. Are they just grasping for links or is there any factual basis for their concern that the way modern food is grown can contribute to cancer? Let’s review how conventional leafy green vegetables, such as Choi Sum or Bak Choi, are typically grown in Hong Kong. All the chemicals listed below are approved and readily available for sale in Hong Kong.

Step 1

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Prior to growing a new crop, conventional chemical farmers spray a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide, such as Glyphosate, to kill weeds in the soil. “Broad-spectrum” means that it is effective against a wide a variety of plants – it is toxic not only to the weeds but also to the vegetables that will subsequently be planted. However, it’s concentration will have been diminished by the time the vegetables are planted. The residual toxicity will still weaken the vegetable and slow its growth. A weaker plant is more susceptible to pests and disease. As such, farmers need to apply higher quantities of pesticide later on to protect the crop from insect attacks.

Several recent studies showed glyphosate potential adverse health effects to humans as it may be an endocrine disruptor. It induces human breast cancer cells growth via oestrogen receptor. 

Step 2 Continue reading

Grow Your Own Greens

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As an Urban Farming and Horticulture instructor in space deprived Hong Kong, I’m often asked about using the much hated bay windows common in many Hong Kong apartments for growing vegetables. The main considerations growing edible plants indoors are limited space, light and airflow. I set out to design a highly functional indoor growing system that would not only address these issues, but also be sustainably built and have a minimalist aesthetic.

The key factor limiting the growth of edible plants indoors is lack of sunlight. Artificial light, while very helpful, creates two issues of its own. First, it consumes electricity, thereby reducing some of the environmental benefits of growing your own vegetables. Second, they must be placed at the correct distance from the plants to be effective (in addition, the correct colour bulb must also be used).

After 18 months of research and tinkering, I came up with the idea of inverting the usual relationship between the artificial light and the plants. Instead of placing the lights over the plants, I surrounded the light with plants. Light from a bulb shines in all directions. By surrounding the bulb with plants I was able to capture and make use of a much higher percentage of the light emitted by the bulb. This maximises the number of plants that can be grown, while at the same time ensuring that the plants are at an optimal distance from the bulb.

An additional benefit of this design is that the light emitted from the bulb can help our plants grow and at the same time light up our home or office. The leaves of the plant in effect act as a living lamp shade. Continue reading

Don’t Get Cheated Buying “Local” Produce

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Due to food safety concerns, some consumers are willing to pay a premium for local organic produce. With almost no manufacturing taking place in Hong Kong, there is little need to worry about local produce being grown in contaminated soils. In addition, many local organic farms have their soil and water tested regularly by the AFCD. Purchasing organic produce alleviates consumer concerns about pesticides.

In spite of these advantages, Hong Kong producers are still only able to capture a tiny sliver of the vegetable market. There are two primary reasons for this. First, high land and labor cost makes local production uncompetitive. Second, Hong Kong’s warm season, from April/May to September/October, is unsuitable for producing some of the most popular vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, spinach, beets, tomatoes and lettuce.

In this highly competitive market, some sellers can earn more if they have these popular vegetables for sale when other sellers do not. Unscrupulous sellers may therefore try to pass off produce imported from the mainland as locally grown in order to gain a competitive edge. Continue reading

The Quiet Hero

IMG_2439 Everyday, after finishing his field work at Mapopo community farm, Farmer Chi Ho can been seen collecting food waste from local restaurants and drink shops around Leun Wo Hui. He brings 100kg of egg shells, shredded coconut, soya meal, tea and coffee grounds back to the farm where it is composted and turned into organic plant nutrients used to grow vegetables. Since he works every day, this amounts to Herculean 3 tons per month of reclaimed waste.

Unlike the organic vegetables grown at Mapopo, most of the food we eat today is grown on large scale industrial farms, and shipped from hundreds if not thousands of miles aways. Our food waste, instead of being recycled back into plant nutrients, is discarded into the landfill.

According to government statistics, food waste constitutes  36% of total landfill waste. Hong Konger’s generate 1.99kg of waste per person per day (in Japan it is 1.71kg, Singapore 1.49kg, and South Korea 1.24kg) and our landfills will be full in a couple of years. The governments position is that this requires a massive expansion of landfills that are vigorously opposed by the public, the building of unpopular incinerators  and a few token food waste processing plants. Places such as Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have experienced decreases in landfill waste with the implementation of municipal waste charging fees and recycling programs. These common sense measures, while supported by the public, are opposed by the powerful business interests that select our political leaders.

Landfill expansion is only half the story when food waste is dumped into a landfill. When organic matter, such as food waste, enters our landfill it decomposes anaerobically. This results in the release of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more efficient at trapping heat than CO2. Continue reading

The Business of (Urban) Farming

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In a previous article we explored the benefits of urban farming in Hong Kong. The term “urban farming” is commonly used to describe what is in fact gardening – a leisure activity for city dwellers whose hobby is growing vegetables. Farming on the other hand is an industry focused on the production of food. As such, is has entirely different objectives, requirements, scale, methods and business models. Urban farming is subject to the same market forces that affect traditional field farming.

Urban farming, in the food production sense, faces two types of challenges: business and technical. The technical or horticultural challenges unique to urban farms include overcoming the limitations and micro-climate conditions specific to rooftops – which we will explore in the future. Here, we will address only the business challenges. These include (but are not limited to): government policy and space, financing and the business environment, and skilled labour and supplier base.

GOVERNMENT POLICY AND SPACE

The first challenge to farming of any kind is securing space. Government policy in Hong Kong explicitly and implicitly favours the property development sector. By definition, it does so at the expense of other sectors such as agriculture. Policies that favour property development encourage speculative, short-term investments that push farmers out of even rural land markets.

Urban farming could theoretically side-step these speculative side effects by putting to use rooftops that have virtually no other use. Unfortunately, the gap in rent between what would be sufficiently financially rewarding for a landlord and what would be financially sustainable for a farmer is simply too large to bridge. Continue reading

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