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?

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?”

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”

Fresh is Best

PRICE Organic soya beans HK$ 28 for 2 pounds (HK$ 30.8 per kg). Non-organic soya beans HK$ 7 per catty (HK$ 11 per kg). 1kg of soya beans makes about 3 litres of soya milk.

PRODUCT RATING Very Good. Homemade soya milk is fresh and delicious. No additives means it’s healthier for you. You can sweeten it to suit your taste. Easy to make and worth the effort. Economical. Very healthy, according to the US FDA:

“Soy protein products can be good substitutes for animal products because, unlike some other beans, soy offers a “complete” protein profile. Soybeans contain all the amino acids essential to human nutrition, which must be supplied in the diet because they cannot be synthesized by the human body. Soy protein products can replace animal-based foods–which also have complete proteins but tend to contain more fat, especially saturated fat–without requiring major adjustments elsewhere in the diet.”

GREEN RATING  Deep Green if made with organic soya beans or consumed as a dairy milk replacement (note: it does not mix well with coffee). Quite Green if made using conventional (GM) soya beans. Soya milk has a much lower carbon footprint than dairy milk. Homemade soya milk reduces that even further because less fossil fuel is used in transportation (liquids are heavier) and refrigeration is not required. In addition, there is no carton to dispose of.

AVAILABLE AT Organic soya beans are available at various health food stores. The price quoted above is from Green Concepts. Conventional soya beans are available in the wet markets.

As part of our effort to reduce our dairy consumption by 50%, we started drinking more soya milk. We began by buying organic soya milk in cartons. However, after researching all the additives in the ingredient list we became concerned. Vita brand soya milk, for example, contains a glazing agent to make it look brighter that is also used in shoe and car polish.

From an environmental perspective, we found the need to manufacture and dispose of single use cartons, and the high carbon footprint required to transport and refrigerate it quite troubling. Searching for an alternative we began making our own soya milk. Here’s how we make it: Continue reading “Fresh is Best”

Milk: The Old Fashion Way

PRODUCT NAME Trappist Dairy and Kowloon Dairy bottled milk

PRICE HK$12 for 2 bottles. HK$1 bottle deposit.

PRODUCT RATING Nothing beats the taste of fresh milk. You can tell the fresh milk (silver) apart from the reconstituted milk (green) by the color of the foil cap on the bottle. Some milk sold in cartons is Ultra Heat Treated (UHT) which changes taste, smell and affects its nutritional value. The minor inconvenience of having to rinse and return the bottles is pretty easy to get used to.

GREEN RATING Light Green. Dairy is very environmentally unfriendly, putting milk in a re-usable glass bottle as opposed to disposable paper carton may make it slightly less so.

AVAILABLE AT Most major convenience stores (7-11, OK) and supermarkets (Park & Shop, Wellcome).

First, lets start with two confessions: (1) buying milk in a glass bottle is probably about as green as driving a SUV with the air conditioning turned off in order to save energy, (2) we don’t possess the mathematical ability to verify that re-useable glass bottles are more environmentally friendly than disposable paper cartons. What we do know is that they won’t end up in the landfill after one use.

Although I know that milk is very environmentally unfriendly, I still have difficulty completely eliminating milk and cheese from my diet. I have however reduced my milk consumption by about 50%, by replacing it with soya milk.

Conventional dairy farming depletes nutrients in the ground and uses huge quantities of fertilisers — fertilisers account for roughly 1% of the world’s total energy consumption. And the methane cows emit in the atmosphere is over 20x times more damaging than CO2. Cadbury’s did a study of the carbon footprint of its chocolate bars and found that although milk only constitutes 1/3 of the weight of the ingredients, it was responsible for 2/3’s of the total carbon footprint. That is quite astonishing when you consider that the total footprint includes packaging, processing, transportation and obviously cocoa (which is itself not an environmentally friendly crop to say the least). Continue reading “Milk: The Old Fashion Way”

Locally Made Noodles

PRICE HK$ 5-6 per piece

FOOD RATING Very good. What a wholesome, natural noodle should taste like. Does not contain preservatives, MSG (E621) or any other artificial additives.

GREEN RATING Egg and Shrimp/egg flavors: Light Green. Whole Wheat and Vegetarian flavors: Quite Green. Locally made in Hong Kong. No plastic packaging or packets of drying agents to dispose of. The whole wheat noodle is made of organic flour. Unfortunately, the other 3 types are not.

AVAILABLE AT GroundWorks in Wanchai

The noodles are sold by GroundWorks, a local social enterprise, in a little shop around the corner from Queen’s Cube in Wanchai. Instead of being individually packaged, the noodles are kept in large, traditional glass jars. This means you can avoid creating more rubbish by re-using your own plastic bag or bringing a container to take them home in. I usually re-use a plastic bread bag after shaking the crumbs out. The shop will provide you with paper bags though if you don’t bring your own.

The noodles are available in four flavors: egg, shrimp/egg, whole wheat and vegetarian. The egg and shrimp/egg flavors come in both thick and thin widths, while the whole wheat and vegetarian only come in thick. The noodles are great in soup or drained and mixed with a sauce. I like to eat them mixed with a sauce consisting of ketchup, oyster and chili sauce with some sesame oil. At first the noodles may not seem as tasty as the ones you normally eat because they don’t contain any MSG (E621), an ingredient found in almost all other noodles. The absence of MSG though really allows the natural taste of the ingredients to shine through.

Of the four flavors, the whole wheat noodle is the most unique because you can actually feel the texture of the wheat. Some may find the texture a bit too coarse though. It’s like eating a noodle version of whole meal wheat bread. Mixing it with another flavor makes for a nice contrast. Continue reading “Locally Made Noodles”

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

Are Those Veggies Safe to Eat?

At the supermarket, I usually see an abundance of fresh, flawless vegetables. The vegetables are uniform in size and shape, and completely untouched by insect marks of any kind. As a organic farmer though, I can attest to the voracious appetite of nature. I have seen lettuce leaves pecked clean by birds, cabbages and corn devoured by insect larvae, cucumber and tomato plants infected by disease, and many crops damaged by slugs, snails and beetles.

In conventional farming, the solution is to apply vast quantities of pesticides. Pesticides are substances that prevent or destroy insects, weeds, and diseases that affect crops. This is chemical warfare against nature. In fact, many modern pesticides are chemically similar to chemical warfare agents developed during WWI and WWII.

For example, organophosphates are the basis of many insecticides, herbicides (that are approved for agricultural use) and nerve gases. According to wikipedia “They are of concern to both scientists and regulators because they work by irreversibly blocking an enzyme that’s critical to nerve function in both bugs and people. Even at relatively low levels, organophosphates may be most hazardous to the brain development of fetuses and young children. They can be absorbed through the lungs or skin or by eating them on food”.

The “safety” of approved pesticides is also commonly compromised by misuse. Farmers may apply more than the recommended amount or they may apply it too close to harvest time. Imagine you are the farmer, and your crop will be harvested in the next two weeks. Months of hard work are about to pay off! But then you see those pesky insects leaving their bite marks on your crop. Do you spray the insecticide, even though the instructions  say “do not spray within 14 days of harvest” or do you simply refrain from spraying and accept that you will earn significantly less or sustain a loss from your now insect damaged crop? Continue reading “Are Those Veggies Safe to Eat?”