Permaculture

permaculture_image

SUSTAINABILITY FACTS ABOUT HONG KONG

  • Our reservoirs have a capacity of 120-150 cubic meters of water per person per year.  The UN considers regions with less than 500 cubic meters per person to be water stressed.
  • Our electricity comes primarily from unsustainable coal, natural gas and nuclear power. Converting to renewable energy is a process that will take many decades, requiring more time than we have if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • Our landfills will be full by 2017. 40% of the garbage going to our landfill is food waste.
  • Over 95% of our food is imported, the majority coming from the mainland. 70% of mainland surface water is polluted. The area of land contaminated by heavy metals has been classified a state secret.

On the one hand we may feel overwhelmed by these facts, and the state of gridlock in Hong Kong’s political system may cause us to just throw up our hands. On the other hand, can we rely on bureaucratic governments, quarterly profit-driven corporations or ineffective NGO’s to solve these issues? Instead, can citizens band together to work on local, small scale solutions that may bring about the seeds of change?

Permaculture courses create a forum for specialists and non-specialists alike to discuss, design and most importantly build small scale solutions to ecological problems. Unlike traditional education, it is active, field-based and hands on. Working together in teams guided by an instructor, participants learn about ecology and design solutions that are modelled on natural systems and based on the following core principles:

  • Care of the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Care of the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of Surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.

The government’s solution to our water deficit is to import water from the mainland. As economic growth on the mainland drives ever increasing demand for water, we will face greater competition for this water. The permaculture solution is to instead apply the ancient technique of rainwater harvesting. During the rainy season, water is collected and stored in tanks to be used when water is scarce. This gravity-fed system not only reduces the need for imported water but also reduces electricity consumption (4% of total electricity consumption globally is used to pump and treat water).

To address our energy and climate change issues, environmentalists promote converting to renewable energy. However, due to factors such as the high water vapour content and pollution in the air, the efficiency of solar panels in Hong Kong is quite low. With limited land, wind farms would need to be located in the ocean, an extremely expensive proposition.

Permaculture instead advocates energy conservation by designing and retrofitting buildings with passive cooling. Continue reading “Permaculture”

Outsourcing Meat Production to China

polyface farm

While out searching for farmland one day, I encountered an elderly woman at the bus stop and struck up a conversation with her. When our conversation turned to farming, she recalled that she used to grow vegetables and raise chickens, and that this practice significantly reduced the amount of pests she had to deal with. The chickens pecked at the ground, eating the pests, and the seeds (and roots) of weeds. By simply feeding themselves, the chickens helped her to dramatically reduce pest and weed problems without  using any chemicals!

In the past, many farmers also raised pigs that were fed with plant waste. This created another win-win situation. The plants and parts of plants that humans didn’t or couldn’t eat were used to fatten up pigs. Plant waste was recycled as pig feed. Kitchen waste (that now makes up 40% of the garbage going to our landfill) was also turned into pig feed. According to the SCMP, the recent increase in the garbage going to our landfill can partly be attributed to the reduction in the number of pig farms in Hong Kong. Continue reading “Outsourcing Meat Production to China”

Why is organic food so expensive?

Spraying Strawberry

As an organic farmer, I am often asked “Why is organic food so expensive?”

The simple answer is that it’s not. It is that conventional (chemical) food is cheap. Or more accurately, the price of conventional food does not reflect its true cost. Let me explain:

The introduction of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides dramatically increased yields and lowered labor input costs, thereby decreasing the price of food. However, they also imposed costs that are not reflected in the price consumers pay for food, what economist call externalities.

Chemical fertilizers are cheaper and more potent than organic fertilizers, resulting in widespread overuse. The use of these highly concentrated fertilizers has created vast dead zones in our oceans, rivers and lakes. This is a cost, but we as consumers don’t pay for it. To grow an equivalent amount of food, organic farmers need to transport and spread much larger quantities of slow-release, low concentration fertilizer on their fields which results in increased labor costs that is paid for by the consumer.

Chemical pesticide and herbicide use is contaminating ground water worldwide. Atrazine, one of the world’s most widely used pesticides, wreaks havoc with the sex lives of adult male frogs, emasculating three-quarter of them.  So while the price we pay for conventional food is cheap, the cost to the environment is not. Without chemical pesticides, organic farmers suffer greater crop loss from pests. Since consumers will not accept blemished fruits and vegetables, organic farmers end up with significantly less salable produce. Hence, they need to sell the salable produce at a higher price in order to survive.

Finally, there is no such thing as organic herbicides, so the organic farmer must manually or mechanically remove weeds. This again, increases the cost of production and needs to be paid for by the consumer. Continue reading “Why is organic food so expensive?”

Local Organic Farmers Market

Pictured above: “Brother So” sells produce at Star Ferry Pier on Wed. PRICE HK$ 16-30 per catty (1 catty = 650g) depending on the market. Farmers at each of the markets generally charge similar prices. In contrast, supermarkets charge HK$ 15-17 per 250g for Mainland grown organic vegetables. Cheapest: Fan Ling. Most Expensive: Mei Foo. FOOD RATING Locally grown means produce is picked fresh, retaining more nutrients and … Continue reading Local Organic Farmers Market

The Farm Life

The Farm Life is a 3 part series on Organic Farming. Organic farming puts us in touch with nature and helps us understand how much we depend on the environment. It’s also a fun, low-impact activity that is great for all ages.

Part 1 in the series is for those that would like to gain a deeper understanding of their food and how to grow it. Over 97% of Hong Kong’s vegetables are imported, making us especially vulnerable to Mainland food safety issues. Vegetables in particular are susceptible to heavy metal pollution in the soil, a serious issue in highly industrial Guangdong, which is the source of a large majority of Hong Kong vegetables.

Organic farming is a great way to learn about growing food, how to select safe, healthy produce, and enjoy the great outdoors. Part 2 will be for those that are looking for fun weekend activity with less of a commitment. In part 3, we will look at travel and farming through World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming (WWOOF).

Part 1: 8 Weekend SEED Organic Farming Course

PRICE HK$2500

GREEN RATING Deep Green

The 8 weekend organic farming course held each year by Sustainable Ecological Ethical Development (SEED) foundation requires some commitment but is truly the most satisfying. Not only will you learn about growing food, you will plant and harvest a delicious crop of farm fresh organic vegetables. Continue reading “The Farm Life”