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Food for thought
26 October 2010
China Daily - Hong Kong Edition



Hong Kong's food supply ranks among the most vulnerable in the world, owing to its heavy reliance on imports. Some believe there is a way to offset that vulnerability by growing more of our own food. They even believe we have the land to do it. Richard Macauley reports.

In Hong Kong, food is never far. Residents can relax about eating well, thanks not only to the sheer number of restaurants in the city but also the variety.

Local cuisine alone has adapted to create a completely new style of food to enjoy, based simply on the time of day. Steamed buns in the morning, dim sum for brunch, tea sets in the afternoon and - should you so wish - Michelin-starred international cuisines in the evening.

This is a remarkable boast for a city which grows very little of its own food and imports so much, but this set-up has put the city at risk, one investment bank has found, of rising food prices.

The Nomura Food Vulnerability Index ranks 80 countries and regions, including Hong Kong, in order of their vulnerability to food price rises.

Hong Kong ranks ninth most highly vulnerable. Perhaps surprisingly, the city's ranking makes it more vulnerable to price fluctuations than even Angola, the Philippines, Kenya or Pakistan. Singapore was ranked a comparatively favorable 49th out of 80.

Ranking highly does not mean that food prices are particularly high at present but rather that, should prices rise in the future, a highly-ranked country or region will face more severe financial problems than those lower on the list.

Rob Subbaraman, Asia Chief Economist at Nomura and author of the Nomura Food Vulnerability Index, was inspired to create the index after the global food crisis hit in 2008.

International food prices rose sharply between 2007-08 as demand for food rose in the world's most populated areas, while the supply of food also became less certain. The introduction of biofuels for instance, meant grains previously grown for food were now being sold to create fuel.

These factors caused the price of rice to increase by more than 200 percent. The price of wheat, corn and soybeans also rose by more than 100 percent.

A rise in food prices can have a serious effect on both individuals and the wider economy, and those countries which rely on food imports are those who will suffer the most.

Hong Kong spends 4.4 percent of its GDP importing food: the highest rate of any country or region on the index. By comparison, Singapore spends just 1 percent of its GDP on food imports, while South Korea and Japan spend 0.9 percent and 0.6 percent respectively.

The first to be hit if a surge in food prices occurs will be the individual, who will see his monthly spending on food rise. Once food bills rise however, this has a knock-on effect on the economy and can cause two problems simultaneously: despite having less disposable cash, inflation can set in.

"When food prices go up, a greater proportion of household spending will be 'swallowed up' by spending on food," says Subbaraman. "This means there is less (money available for) the consumption of other items." And so households feel poorer.

Inflation arrives to add further damage to the situation because food spending accounts for such a significant proportion of total household spending.

If tram fares were to rise by 50 percent for example, the economic ripples would be minor, as the cost of tram tickets account for only a very small amount of a person's total spending.

Food, however, is a cost which everybody pays, whether daily at restaurants or weekly at markets. And not only does everybody need to pay for food but food also accounts for a large proportion of peoples' total spending. Raise food prices then, and this will cause a splash.

As if having less cash and higher inflation weren't already enough to put a strain on families though, the Nomura report says that such phenomena can then lead to the national currency weakening, which would make imported food and other goods yet more expensive still.

This could create a vicious circle for Hong Kong.

These are all rather grim prospects that somewhat strike at the heart of Hong Kong's identity. Given the wealth of the city it is unlikely that many will starve to death as a result of rapidly rising food prices but for a service economy such as Hong Kong's a depreciating currency, inflation and reduced spending power could all act to reduce competitiveness of the city on a global scale.

Subbaraman explains that the number one reason for Hong Kong's vulnerability, despite its wealth, is the city's size. "It's difficult because Hong Kong is just a city, and doesn't have a great deal of arable land. Hong Kong is at number nine on the index despite having a much higher income level than other countries in the top 10, purely because it has so little arable land."

Indeed, it is a surprise to see Hong Kong rub shoulders with Azerbaijan at number 10 and Sudan at number eight in the index.

Harold Corke, professor at the University of Hong Kong's School of Biological Sciences, disagrees that these factors mean that Hong Kong is in trouble: "I don't think Hong Kong has a food security issue," he says. "Hong Kong imports all of its food anyway. It doesn't matter whether raw food prices double or triple, and people will still pay it."

Corke adds that much of the food consumed in Hong Kong is processed in some respects, and that in processed foods the cost of raw foodstuffs - wheat, corn and rice - accounts for only a small proportion of what customers pay for it.

"Look at a packet of breakfast cereal," he says. "The cost of the raw food which goes into something like cereal is likely close to just HK$1."

So if Hong Kong is indeed vulnerable to food price surges, the effects of that vulnerability may be limited.

Wheat, rice and corn price rose by drastic levels during the 2008 food crisis and rioting ensued as a result across many countries in Africa and Asia. Hong Kong though, saw no unrest.

Though not feeling the impact of the food crisis on the dining industry, Todd Darling, founder of Posto Pubblico, a Soho restaurant, makes sure almost everything served is both sustainably grown, and grown in Hong Kong.

"We have a 20,000-square-foot farm in the New Territories," he explains. It's enough to produce vegetables for the entire restaurant, which is no mean feat given the crowds waiting for tables on any given evening.

Darling is passionate about the concept of sustainable foods: food grown in a way that does not leave a negative impact on the environment or the health of those growing or eating it. No chemicals are used in growing sustainable crops and waste is dealt with appropriately, not disposed of in a manner which harms the nearby environment.

Crucially for Darling though, he sees sustainable food as a way to help reduce Hong Kong's vulnerability to price rises. After all, one of the best solutions for reducing imports is to grow more food at home.

"A lot of disused land in the New Territories is privately owned, but is just sitting with containers on it," he explains. "Overseas families, for instance, might own four, six or 10 acres but they're just waiting for a developer to come and make an offer on it, which they think will be more profitable than using it as farmland.

"But no developers are knocking on their door. Some of this land doesn't even have decent road access."

Asked whether it was possible for Hong Kong to sustain itself entirely by growing on its own land, Darling was skeptical but maintained that a significant amount of Hong Kong's vegetables could be grown in the city. Doing so would make a great improvement not only to the city's economic vulnerability but also residents' quality of life.

"The longer your food supply chain is, the greater the risk you face from fluctuating food prices," he adds. "Growing food here means we can reduce these risks while creating an excellent greenbelt between ourselves and the factories of Guangdong."

It's a convincing argument as to how to tackle the threat of food price vulnerability, and Darling also argues that secondary benefits include accountability: a Hong Kong customer of Hong Kong-produced food can find out for himself the conditions in which their food was grown, forcing farmers to maintain the highest standards possible.

From an economic viewpoint, Subbaraman explains that in fact the best action Hong Kong can take is to ensure that it runs a budget surplus in order to prepare for the worst.

"The government needs to be saving for a rainy day," he says. "And then if food prices get out of hand it can subsidise prices for the poorest in society."

Subbaraman says the government now boasts a budget surplus, and is in a sound position to provide subsidies for food should the worst occur.

But the factors which make the city so vulnerable to begin with still remain. Hong Kong's great financial wealth has, after all, done nothing to prevent the city being placed in the top 10 most vulnerable regions out of 80 surveyed.

That the city has weathered one food price storm already is no indication of how it might fare in another in the future.
 

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Hong Kong reports African swine fever case
Excerpt
11 May 2019

HONG KONG (AP) — A case of African swine fever has been detected in a Hong Kong slaughterhouse, prompting the culling of all 6,000 pigs at the facility.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said in a statement Friday that the incurable virus was found in a single pig imported from a farm in Guangdong province in mainland China, where the monthslong outbreak has devastated herds.

Pork is China's staple meat and its price and availability is considered a matter of national concern. Shortfalls in supply have increased demand for pork from producers in the U.S., with whom China is locked in an increasingly acrimonious tariff battle.

Chan said the culling was necessary so that "thorough cleansing and also disinfection could be conducted." Operations at the Sheung Shui Slaughterhouse would be suspended until the disinfection work is completed, she said.

"We will enhance the surveillance and also testing of pigs, and currently we collect samples from pigs with ASF symptoms for testing, and in the future we will step up the sampling of other pigs for testing," Chan said.

She said the territory's fresh pork supply would be reduced in the near future but there would still be a limited supply of live pigs available from another slaughterhouse.

More : https://www.apnews.com/f66a853f723c4b22bcf3964e5c543c04
 

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Sino Group’s ‘urban farms’ aim to bring residents, office workers closer to nature amid Hong Kong’s concrete jungle
South China Morning Post Excerpt
Feb 2, 2021

Hong Kong is known for many things – gleaming skyscrapers, crowded spaces and cramped housing – but farming in the concrete jungle is not one of them. Now property developer Sino Group is pushing to change that with a programme under its sustainability agenda that it hopes will enhance the value of its numerous properties.

Spanning 23,000 square feet, the company’s Farm Together project currently operates six plots across Sino Group’s residential and commercial properties, including a hotel.

The largest, with an area of 11,840 sq ft is the Sky Farm at the Skyline Tower in Kowloon Bay where crops such as Romaine lettuce, sweet potatoes and indigo plants are grown. At the group’s Hong Kong Gold Coast Hotel, meanwhile, a garden comprising 40 flower and plant species is home to more than 20 different types of butterfly.

More : Hong Kong developer’s ‘urban farms’ target green-fingered residents
 
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