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

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”

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 “Don’t Get Cheated Buying “Local” Produce”

Summer Greens for Hong Kong

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GGHK Editors Note: Eating local, seasonal vegetables has numerous benefits for both our health and the environment. We benefit from fresher vegetables that are more nutritious and contain fewer pesticides. Cultivated in the right season, plants grow more vigorously making them less susceptible to pests and diseases. By eating seasonally, we can help conventional farmers reduce their use of harmful chemical pesticides. Our usual leafy greens: lettuce, spinach, pak choi, choi sum and kai lan are cool season crops that don’t grow well in the summer.   

The article below was contributed by Joshua Keil, a registered dietitian, with a special interest in food security, and community health. Joshua has experience working with groups and individuals to achieve their nutrition goals in a wide range of conditions including chronic illness, weight loss, and general healthy eating.

Ceylon Spinach, Amaranth (aka Chinese Spinach), Sweet Potato Leaf, and Morning Glory (aka Kangkong) are all dark leafy green vegetables that can be grown in the hot Hong Kong summer. Like many leafy greens, they are very nutritious and should be included regularly in your diet.

All are great sources of Vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy skin, hair, and tissue, improve dim light vision, and new cell growth.

Magnesium is another mineral these plants contain in abundance. It is important in maintaining healthy bones & teeth, maintaining nerve function, and recently has been found to play an important role in blood sugar regulation.

Finally, folate is found in large quantities in all of these vegetables. It can help maintain normal digestion, and is crucial in red blood cell production. Folate deficiency can lead to fatigue and anemia.

We should note that spinach and amaranth (both belong to the same plant family) have popularly been labeled as good sources of iron and calcium (thanks Popeye). However the presence of oxalates, especially in amaranth, make absorbing these two minerals very difficult. You should not rely on these vegetables for these two important minerals, but these plants are still packed with nutrients and should be eaten often.

Nourishing the body through food, is a proven way to improve skin health, and overall wellbeing. Skin care, and other cosmetic products, promise results, but there is very little scientific research to back up those claims. Dark leafy greens, and other fruits and vegetables, provide a wide range of nutrients that keep our bodies healthy from the skin inwards.

Another advantage of consuming these vegetables during the summer months is that they are good replacements for more common Chinese greens, such as Pak Choi and Choi Sum, that are imported from mainland China, where pesticide use is out of control. According to a 2013 Greenpeace report, Mainland China uses more pesticides than any other country in the world, and produce analyzed from several grocery stores contained up to 10 different chemicals on a single item. Being able to purchase local, preferably organic, produce can help us avoid these toxic chemicals.

Since these four vegetables can all be grown locally in summer, it is much less likely they will contain the cocktail of pesticides that can be found on some mainland produce. Even better, seek out farmers that grow food organically, meaning that they don’t use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Continue reading “Summer Greens for Hong Kong”

Why is organic food so expensive?

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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?”

BYOB to the Bakery

PRODUCT Locally made baked goods

PRODUCT RATING Delicious. Factory-made baked goods from the major chains (Maxims, etc) just can’t compare with the warm taste of fresh-from-the-oven buns made by your neighborhood baker.

GREEN RATING Quite Green. Neighborhood bakeries don’t pre-package their buns in plastic bags, meaning you can bring-your-own-bag (BYOB). Switching to locally baked buns also reduces air pollution. Explained below.

Walking around Hong Kong, you see bakeries literally on every block. This makes getting a tasty bite to eat very convenient. However, due to the unsustainable practices of the major bakery chains, there is a very heavy cost inflicted on the environment. In 2009 (when the plastic bag levy came into effect), bakeries were responsible for 262 million plastic bags ending up in the landfill. A year later, that increased to 370 million bags, an increase of 21%. The ineffectual plastic bag levy exempted many retail categories, including bakeries. Seeing the writing on the wall, many bakery chains decided to “pre-package” their buns in order to circumvent the anticipated future expansion of the bag levy to the previously excluded categories. This is an example of a well intentioned, but poorly executed legislation causing more harm than good (we need a levy on ALL plastic bags).

Most bakery chains in Hong Kong do not produce their baked goods on site. They are produced in factories and then delivered all over Hong Kong. This business model reduces cost and allows the chains to capture economies of scale in production. But the taste of factory made buns just can’t compare with ones freshly out of the oven from your neighborhood bakery. The buns at some of the chains taste like they are made of sugar-coated cardboard. For me, nothing beats a warm, fresh-from-the-oven bun.

This centralized production model results in delivery trucks driving around Hong Kong every day adding to our already dismal air pollution. In contrast, your local neighborhood bakery probably has ingredients delivered once a month, resulting in a lower carbon footprint and reduced air pollution.

When buying baked goods, I would encourage you to try the following in order to reduce the environmental impact:

1. Buy from your neighborhood bakery that bakes its goods onsite. This will support local enterprises while also reducing air pollution in Hong Kong. Continue reading “BYOB to the Bakery”

Sustainable Canned Tuna

PRODUCT & PRICE Marks & Spencer canned tuna steak HK$30(2nd from top)

PRODUCT RATING Tuna steak is much tastier than flaked tuna. However, all tuna should be consumed in moderate quantities due to mercury, from coal fired power plants, that accumulates in the flesh of many larger fish.

GREEN RATING Quite Green for not using endangered species and destructive fishing methods in its canned tuna products. M&S only uses skipjack in its canned tuna products. Unlike many other tuna species, the skipjack tuna population is considered sustainable against its current consumption. According to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), skipjack tuna stock is neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing. M&S uses only pole and line catch method (no nets) which eliminates “bycatch”. Sharks, rays, marlins, turtles and other fish caught as bycatch are usually thrown back dead because they are the wrong species, the wrong size, of inferior quality or surplus to the fishing operation’s quotas. M&S is ranked #2 in Greenpeace UKs 2011 ranking of sustainable tuna products. John West is ranked #7, while other Hong Kong supermarket brands, such as Ayam, do not specify species or fishing method (labeling is the absolute minimum requirement to even be considered in sustainability rankings). Please remember to recycle your tins.

According to Australian Food News:

“The majority of canned tuna is caught using fish aggregation devices (or FADs) — floating and submerged objects that encourage tuna to gather around them. The fish are then scooped up in huge nets called purse seines.

Marine animals are killed or harmed in fishing operations without ever being brought on board. Species like turtles and dolphins get tangled in nets or hooked on longlines. Even those that escape are sometimes too injured or weak to survive the ordeal. Continue reading “Sustainable Canned Tuna”