AGRICULTURE, SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: ARE WE DOING IT RIGHT?

This series on "Agriculture, Sustainability and the Environment: Are we doing it right?" brings together academics, professionals and researchers who are working on agriculture and environmental related theories and issues on the ground. Our writers focus on describing how humans impact environment in many different ways through various agricultural practices that have serious sustainability implications for the future of our environment. You are welcome to leave comments on the research and ideas shared in the posts for this series as well as contact us to share your thoughts on the topic of agriculture, sustainability and environment with us.

SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC DRIVERS OF ORGANIC FARMING IN HONG KONG

By Ayla Fudala

Hong Kong has only been urban and industrial for the past 90 years, making it the perfect model for a study of a region in an early stage of urbanization and industrialization. During that short time span, the area has undergone an extreme transformation. From rice paddies and subsistence farming to booming economic centers and extravagant skyscrapers, Hong Kong has shocked the world with the speed of its capitalist metamorphosis. My goal in conducting this research is to understand the shift in environmental awareness that tends to accompany the emergence of a middle and upper-class consumer group. The region --started with subsistence agriculture which caused no environmental harm-- changed swiftly to a land-consuming urbanization which transformed the neighboring environment to an environmentally aware urban class who wants to restore the land to its original state and consume organically- grown vegetables. 

It is my hypothesis that this sudden growth in environmental awareness is only possible for a certain group of people. These people, who can afford to buy organic produces to assuage their fears about product safety and environmental degradation, are the upper or middle-class educated people, typically living in the city.  The rest of the farmers, processers, and rural residents are still concerned with subsistence and thus have no time for concerns about the environment. In other words, organic farming serves exclusively high-income individuals in urbanized societies. 

Primary data for my research on organic farming in Hong Kong was obtained when I spent two weeks working at EFarm HK, a small organic farm in the Fanling Province of Hong Kong’s New Territories, through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program. There I conducted interviews with farm owners, farm workers, volunteer, and consumers in order to ascertain their personal motivations for joining the organic farming movement. I also observed and participated in the specific organic methods of EFarm HK, which involved complex systems of aquaculture and permaculture. In this post, I briefly discuss a few major insights regarding the organic farming culture, and social and economic factors associated with such practices in Hong Kong.

Photo: EFarm in Hok Tau Wai, New Territories, Hong Kong

Photo: EFarm in Hok Tau Wai, New Territories, Hong Kong

By examining the economic and personal motivations of rural organic farmers and urban vegetable processors as indicated by their responses to my interview questions, I was able to form an image of the social and economic identities of the less-privileged people who man this niche market. By comparing the number of environmental idealists I encounter to the number of pure economists, and considering their places in the organic market, I was able to draw conclusions about the social and economic dynamics of not only Hong Kong’s organic farming industry, but the prototypical state of organic farming industries across the world. 

I learned that the people involved with the organic movement in Hong Kong could be divided into two groups: farm owners and workers of lower socioeconomic status who grew organic products because it was profitable; and farm owners and buyers of organic produce of higher socioeconomic status, who farm or buy organic because of their environmentalist ideals. Because of its high cost, organic farming can only ever be a niche market which mainly caters to its upper class consumers. 

Photo: Star Ferry Pier Organic Farmer's Market in Central Hong Kong

Photo: Star Ferry Pier Organic Farmer's Market in Central Hong Kong

Although organic farms take up more than 20% of Hong Kong’s agricultural land, they only provide 0.2% of Hong Kong’s fresh vegetable supply. The limited amount of land in Hong Kong makes it impossible for it to ever be agriculturally self-sustained. Thus any farming, organic or otherwise, done in Hong Kong is not a major food source but rather a niche market.

The high costs of organic food (due to higher production costs and certification costs) mean that only middle or upper class people can afford to eat organic. Middle-aged women are the most likely to buy organic. Consumption of organic food does not appear to be motivated by economic reasons but rather by fears over food safety and to a lesser extent, environmental ideals. The market for organic food is unsteady due to its reactionary nature.

There are many issues facing Hong Kong’s organic farming movement. The most important is the simple scarcity of land which makes the idea of an agriculturally sustainable Hong Kong impossible. Then there is land-grabbing, prohibitive costs of organic certification, the unreliable market which is dependent on food scarcity, the high costs of organic farming itself, the lack of government subsidies, the lack of an agricultural education system, consumer distrust of organic labels, predatory organizations like VMO which buy produce cheap and sell it for much more, and competition with organic foods imported from the US and Australia.

Despite all of the problems with organic farming in Hong Kong, organic farm owners told me that business was slowly but steadily growing, and almost everyone I interviewed had high hopes for the future of organic farming. An idyllic vision of sustainability is driving the organic farming movement onward, despite its impracticality and the obvious impossibility of its goals. This is particularly true in Hong Kong, where land is scarce and the majority of food is imported. However, this scenario is common in any newly industrialized regions or countries which practice organic farming such as South Africa or Brazil.

Consumers are motivated by environmental ideals, and without this ideal-driven consumption organic farming would never be economically viable. Thus no matter whether the organic farmer is driven by economic profit or ideals, the result is the same— the organic farming movement is an impractical contraption driven by environmental idealism. The majority of organic farmers recognize this and value organic farming for its social value; the way it brings communities together, allows city-dwellers a respite from urban life, and empowers local farmers.

Ayla Fudala is a PPEH undergraduate Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated with a double-major in Environmental Studies and English in the Spring of 2016. Her work on organic farming in Hong Kong work was featured as a story at Penn's Arts & Culture Initiative.