There is no doubt that the biggest challenges of any farmer are weeds competing with crops for space, light and nutrients, and insects engulfing harvests like wildfire. Effective pesticides (insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) are therefore miraculous inventions in the eyes of many farmers. They dramatically lower costs by saving time and energy, and most importantly, enable farmers to avoid numerous problems. Humans are known to be visual … Continue reading Unravelling the Secrets of Pesticides
A short while ago, I was interviewed by a reporter about Water for Free and environmental protection in general. She suggested we meet at Interval Coffee Bar on Wellington Street. Upon arrival, I noticed that all the sit-in patrons were drinking coffee from paper cups. I then turned my attention to the counter and realised there weren’t any ceramic cup there. When the reporter showed … Continue reading Say No to Disposable Coffee Cups
I found the signing petition initiated by the WildAid on the website supporthk.org demanding Maxim, the biggest Chinese restaurant group in Hong Kong, to stop selling shark’s fin soup a little depressing. 7 years have passed since I took part in the campaign which successfully forced Citi Bank to drop its credit card promotion for card holders to enjoy shark’s fin meal at Maxim at … Continue reading Say No to Shark Fin Soup Loud and Clear
While strolling through a Wellcome supermarket one evening, I saw the staff removing 30 or so packs of unsold meat from the fridge, and putting them in a black plastic garbage bag. I asked whether it was going to be thrown away as trash. The friendly worker nonchalantly replied “yes”, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
These packs of unsold meat, sitting in foam trays and enclosed in plastic wrap, will be sent to the nearby landfill. There, they will decompose anaerobically, emitting a horrendous stench and methane, a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more powerful than CO2.
In 2012, research by Friends of the Earth (FoE) revealed that Hong Kong’s supermarket chains were throwing away tons of food everyday. FoE estimated that the big four supermarket chains: ParkNshop, Wellcome, China Resource and Jusco (now renamed Aeon) combined were sending 87 tonnes of food to the landfill each day. According to FoE, “In a year, the food they throw away is equivalent to the weight of two thousand double decker buses.” Of that amount, one third is bread, vegetables, fruits and even sushi that is still edible. Two thirds consists of peel and expired food which they classified as non-edible (However, as John Oliver explains in this hilarious segment, the expiration dates set are quite arbitrary and most food is still edible well past the expiration date). Continue reading “Meat Free Landfills”
Green Monday is a social enterprise that promotes vegetarian diets by cooperating with restaurants, schools, hospitals and other enterprises. Vegetarian diets have been widely recognised to provide both health and environmental benefits. “Green Monday” is an ingenious way to get non-vegetarians to start thinking about eating a vegetarian meal once a week. It publishes meat-free menus and recipes, hosts vegetarian cooking classes and provides educational talks on diets and nutrition. Recently, they expanded their business to retail, opening a vegetarian supermarket in Wanchai called Green Common. I dropped by one afternoon to check it out.
The decor is minimalist and cool. Organic vegetables are prominently displayed near the entrance. Some of the produce is locally sourced. Shelves inside are full of vegetarian products － gone are the days of vegetarian food being bland and uninteresting. The wide array of ingredients and seasonings from all over the world lets you experience vegetarianism without sacrificing flavour, nutrition or variety. Continue reading “Green Common”
Spraying Roundup herbicide on Roundup Ready crops to kill weeds
In Part 1, the potential of GMOs to fundamentally change the way we grow food was explored. Of course it isn’t all upside and there is risk when transitioning technology from the lab to the field. But as GM technology is just a plant breeding tool, it’s more pressing to look at the context in which it’s being used and to what end. As of now it has been reduced to a bandaid for maintaining an unsustainable system of industrial farming. Because of this, claims that GM crops can benefit humans (by improving the nutritional content) and the environment (by reducing chemical use on farms) have not been realized.
GM crops are by current metrics safe to humans and the environment. They are without a doubt less harmful than pesticides sprayed on open fields that contaminate water supplies and nearby forests. Regardless, there are reasons to be careful, changing the complex dynamics of ecosystems will have consequences. Crops engineered to kill insects could disrupt natural ecosystems. Another concern is the unlikely possibility that the engineered genes may be passed on to other species via cross-pollination. This could spread herbicide resistance on to weeds or unintentionally kill beneficial insects.
The biggest issue is what GM technology is being used in service of – propping up our current system of industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture involves growing monocultures or miles and miles of a single crop. While maximizing efficiency, it sacrifices the resiliency of a farm in the face of pest and plant diseases by completely destroying the ecology for the purpose of growing one crop. With only a single crop, pest and diseases can spread like wildfire causing great damage. Hence, these fields require extremely potent chemical pesticides to protect them. Continue reading “GM Foods Part 2: A Tool We Can’t Turn Away From?”
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?”
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
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.
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.
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 “Don’t Get Cheated Buying “Local” Produce”