GM Foods Part 1: A Tool We Can’t Turn Away From?

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Part 1 explains the history and benefits of GMOs. Part 2 will examine the risks and issues. 

Modern agriculture’s practice of growing monoculture crops with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers makes it one of the most environmentally destructive human activities. Almost nothing compares to the catastrophic levels of deforestation, toxification of water resources, and soil exhaustion that results directly from conventional chemical farming. But we need low-cost food to feed the world and therefore we need modern agriculture. Genetically engineering staple crops, to reduce pest infestation and boost their nutritional content, may be able to reduce the impact of modern agriculture, increase yields for a hungry planet, and lower rates of nutrient deficiency in the developing world.

The portrayal of DNA in popular culture unhelpfully overemphasizes its influence. DNA is not a rigid blueprint dictating our fate, but rather a library stretching beyond view, crammed with manuals describing in detail how our body works. Depending on environmental conditions, some manuals are pulled from the shelf and read while others remain untouched. Each cell carries this library within its nucleus. The function of DNA is to provide these manuals, written in a code, for directing protein creation. Proteins are multipurpose workers that do the most important tasks in the cell. Scientists can cut DNA strands and insert new, lab-made code that alters which proteins are created, thereby altering the functioning of the cell itself. Genetic engineering stripped down is simply that, cutting and pasting bits of genetic code in an effort to alter the functioning of the cell. The most difficult part is deducing if the code leads to a protein that produces the desired effect, and if so, how will it affect other cell processes. Continue reading “GM Foods Part 1: A Tool We Can’t Turn Away From?”

Soil Matters!

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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). Continue reading “Soil Matters!”

Farming in the Summer

Amaranth or Yin Choi 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 … Continue reading Farming in the Summer

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 “Hydroponics and Property Development”

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 “Agri-Park”

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. 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 “Cancer and Food”

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 “Grow Your Own Greens”