[HKBUEB] What Is Agriculture in Hong Kong Indeed?

What Is Agriculture in Hong Kong Indeed?
Translated by Natalie Lung, edited by Chen-t'ang, written by Edith Lam (Jumbo, 48th Editorial Board of HKBU)
Original: http://issuu.com/_hkbusueb/docs/jumbo_48.1 [pp. 47-50] 2015 

A brief history of agriculture in Hong Kong

In the 1950s, immigrants from Mainland China (China) became the majority of Hong Kong’s farming population and grew rice for a living in Yuen Long and Fan Ling in the New Territories. Due to the development of new towns in the 60s, they shifted their focus to growing vegetables. The original agricultural labour force gradually decreased under urbanisation.

Ten years later, China lifted the export quota of vegetable produce to Hong Kong, thus forcing local vegetable farmers to pivot again—to fishing or animal rearing. 

In the matter of a few decades, land used for farming drastically dropped from the then thirteen thousand hectares to the present seven hundred or so hectares. Self-sufficiency rate went from a peak of 50% to today’s 2%. 

Agricultural land in Hong Kong today are mainly distributed in the north to northeast New Territories: Fan Ling North, Kwu Tong North, and Ta Kwu Ling; and the west to northwest area: Kam Tin and Pat Heung. 

From yesterday’s thriving agriculture to today’s financial and real estate industries, the Pearl of the Orient has replaced the fishing village—is the decline of agriculture merely a natural progression of history, or is it disregarding diverse, sustainable development?

Indispensable local agriculture

Why should agriculture be revived when Hong Kong has been heavily reliant on imported food for the last few decades?

The main reason is to attain a certain degree of food self-sufficiency; in other words, it is to reach a certain self-sufficiency rate.

Each country must have a food producing industry to minimise its reliance on imports and to reduce the effects of food price inflation.

During the 1967 labour strikes, hawkers and meat suppliers refused to deliver their goods; even pork and vegetables that had already been shipped from the Mainland to the train station in Hong Kong had to be returned. This lasted for four days. 

Since 60% of food came from Mainland back then, a shortage in the supply of agricultural produce emerged. Food prices soared twofold. But it was the self-sufficiency in farm produce Hong Kong had that pulled the city through the crisis. 

In 2012, the supply of Choi Sum from China dropped by three to four% due to a cold climate. Vegetable prices surged from five to six dollars per kilo up to twenty dollars per kilo. The public was forced to purchase expensive vegetables. 

With today’s agricultural labour force in the Mainland shrinking due to urbanisation, farmers’ wages would definitely increase. Coupled with the continuous revaluation of the Renminbi, it can be easily foreseen that Mainland vegetables would become increasingly expensive even without accounting for environmental factors. 

If Hong Kong continues to rely on China's vegetable supply without its own agriculture, the vegetable price would surely fluctuate.

Hong Kong also needs local agriculture to improve food safety. News about tainted food produce is not new. The import of contaminated vegetables from Dongguan in 2012 left many stunned; even after the matter was cleared up, members of the public still felt wary.

In 2015, Cable News uncovered a tainted vegetable smuggling incident where vegetables with exceeding levels of pesticides were directly shipped and sold at several wet markets, circumventing tests at the Centre for Food Safety. This was all unbeknownst to consumers.

If there is local agriculture, Hong Kong people could enjoy more produce that is grown on healthy land and on fertiliser whose source is clearly known, in turn safeguarding food safety.
Kadoorie Farm.

Land shortage: an obstacle for agriculture development

It is no doubt that land shortage is the biggest obstacle for local agricultural development. 

According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, Hong Kong has 4,523 hectares of farm land, but active agricultural land only amounts to 729 hectares, and only 298 of those are used to grow vegetables. 

People who desire to farm could hardly rent land in the New Territories. Although they could reach out to landlords and seek suitable land through the Agricultural Land Rehabilitation Scheme, the average waiting time is five years. Furthermore, the quality of farmland is uneven in quality. 

At present, there are 3,794 hectares of vacant farm land. Land ownership is concentrated among indigineous people and developers who have had no desire to rent the land out to farmers.

Some of the land has been hoarded for developers to purchase for the development of new towns; Some has been repurposed for illegal uses such as outdoor warehouses, container yards, chop shops, and waste recycling yards. 

In addition, Hong Kong has 803 hectares of brownfield sites—farmland that has been destroyed by construction waste and concrete. They could hardly be turned into arable land again as the environment and ecosystem around it have been destroyed.

Non-indigenous farmers also suffer from short-term leases. Most farmland is leased to farmers on a two-to-five-year contract, but building infrastructure like water canals, conducting water and land observations, and adjusting plantation methods take two years, and the instability of renewing a lease leaves people worried about not being able to breakeven before land is taken away from them. 

Under such substantial risk, farmers become reluctant to make long-term investments, indirectly minimizing the potential for agricultural development. 
Policies ignore the root of the problem

The new agriculture policy proposed by former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in his 2015 Policy Address comprises four main goals:

The policy’s consultation document advocated the use of technology for sustainable agricultural development. It included several examples of modern agricultural production methods, such as organic farming, greenhouse production, etc., and pointed out how hydroponic farming practices in Singapore and greenhouse farming in London can raise agriculture productivity.

Agricultural organizations and academics believe that the government did not consider the long-term planning of agriculture development in the consultation document.

A major criticism was the absence of a target for self-sufficiency rate. The document mentioned the need for increasing agriculture productivity but it did not set clear metrics for such a goal. It criticises self-sufficiency rate as a metric that values quantity over quality, and setting such a target would instead cause productivity to drop, making it an unrealistic reference for food supply. 

As a matter of fact, many countries around the world have set goals for self-sufficiency. While China’s Ministry of Agriculture had required Guangzhou to set a self-sufficiency target of 50% or above for live pork by 2016, the Hong Kong government is avoiding the self-sufficiency issue that is causing huge ramifications on food safety.

The policy also did not account for the use of the 70 to 80 hectare farmland outside the Agricultural Park. 

Resolving the shortage and the deliberate destruction of farmland are key factors for developing agriculture. The aforementioned 3,000 or so hectares of abandoned farmland should be utilised to increase the area of active agricultural land and the output of crops. Meanwhile, the document did not propose a resolution to the brownfield sites issue that has arisen due to the government’s loose grip on illegal soil dumping, nor has there been any measures to crack down on such illegal behaviour.

Furthermore, the idea of the Agricultural Park has been criticised as unrealistic.

Nowadays, many farmers live in farmhouses next to their land in the New Territories. Such an arrangement allows them to care for their crops any time of the day, which could also reduce the time for travelling to and from the city.

But Agri-Park is an earmarked piece of land that would be leased out to farmers on 5-year contracts, and with no supporting infrastructure, it goes against the customary practice of farmers living and working on the same piece of land. Many problems will arise if the Agri-Park is built.

Academics predict that the agriculture fund would go to industry practitioners who own capital and large-scale vegetable markets, robbing small farmers of chances to improve their livelihood.

The funding scheme aims to reward high-tech agricultural production, such as the introduction of machinery and other modern methods, all of which cost a fortune and are impossible for ordinary farmers to afford.

Take hydroponic farming as an example. It is an indoors plantation method which uses nutrient solution and does not require soil. This way, crops can be arranged in vertically stacked layers. However, basic equipment costs $3 million—that is excluding energy costs. Small farmers who could not afford to employ technology in their farming techniques are essentially placed out of reach of funding assistance. 

On the other hand, vegetable farmers who moved up to China in the 1990s to grow their crops and may now have higher economic status may return to Hong Kong to become the main beneficiaries of the scheme.

Furthermore, the two overseas use cases of agricultural technology mentioned in the consultation report are not worthy of reference. 

The hydroponic techniques used in Singapore are highly energy-inefficient and cause destruction to the environment, not to mention their sky-high costs compared to organic farming. 

Hydroponic farming consumes much energy to power water pumping, lighting systems and the production of nutrient solution. If hydroponic farming is to be practiced on farm land in Hong Kong, there is first a need to remodel the land into concrete ground. Industrial farming methods and the use of chemical fertilizers containing heavy metals will then introduced. It is obvious that hydroponic farming is not an environmentally-friendly and sustainable way to grow crops. 

The document also referred to London’s 120-hectare greenhouse and its high GDP value, but the size of farms in the New Territories are only 0.2 hectares on average. Land over a hundred hectares is hard to come by in Hong Kong. 

These two examples are an indication for the government’s top-down mindset for development and ultimately, their ineptness to understand the reality of the agriculture industry.
What are the ways out for agriculture development?

The prospect of increasing agricultural productivity does not lie solely in large-scale plantation. Neither is the goal of Hong Kong’s agriculture development to produce the volumes that would allow for exports. Small-scale agricultural models—community or combined farming—may be more viable.

According to the Trade and Environment Review released by the United Nations in 2013, organic, small-scale farming is the only sustainable mode of agricultural development. 

Unlike industrial farming, the small-scale farming model share a more intimate connection with the natural ecosystem. Agriculture should not be seen solely as an industry that produces food, but rather, one that protects natural scenery, biodiversity, water and land resources.

In addition to resource-recycling, having agriculture in our society can help safeguard local food safety. Fresh crops grown by local farms could be delivered and sold at farmers’ markets on the same day. People could know where their vegetables came. If they were dissatisfied with the quality of vegetables, their feedback could be reflected to farmers directly. Communication between the consumer and producer can be increased.

Reusing residential and commercial food waste as fertilizers not only reduces waste, but it also ensures that the fertilizer is safe to use, which further safeguards the quality of crops. 

Academics predict that farming would resume on more than 3,000 hectares of idle farm land. Based on the degree of food consumption in Hong Kong, a 27% self-sufficiency rate could be attained.

Food waste is a severe problem in Hong Kong. Given that over one third of solid waste produced by the city is food waste, if food waste is reduced, self-sufficiency rate could reach an estimated 40%, which is enough to satisfy a certain degree of Hong Kong’s food supply.

But the new agriculture policies’ focus on modernization technology distances agriculture and the environment, and neglects the consequences of high carbon emissions and environmental pollution. 

Academics describe high-tech agricultural development as nuclear power: both have high production value, but the price of destroying the environment is something that the public can hardly afford to pay.

Agriculture and cities are inseparable; their development requires holistic and clear land planning. Relying on advanced technologies and putting off land issues can only do so much to solve the root problems.

“There’s no agriculture without farmland”

Facing shortage of farmland, some farmers believe the government should adopt policies that would encourage developers to release the hoarded farmland. For example, the Chinese government charges an idle land tax on land that has not been developed or falls short of the required ratio of constructed area to proposed constructed area. They could even reclaim the idle land.

Hong Kong should also adopt similar policies, encouraging developers to lease their land to farmers to avoid penalty. 

In addition, with the copious amounts of farmland being converted to other uses and to brownfield sites, the government should first improve its planning policy.

Each area of land on the plan has one of these two uses: “Column One use” refers to “uses always permitted” and “Column Two use” refers to “uses that would require permission from the Town Planning Board”, so land that has been earmarked as farm land does not necessarily serve the sole purpose of agriculture, but could also be used for housing or clubhouses.

Recently, some developers proposed three applications, including one to build 270 low-density apartment buildings and an international boarding school in the Tsiu Keng agricultural zone in Kwu Tung South. The proposal was accepted because farm land in the area in question has “school” listed under one of its “Column Two use”. 

Academics pointed out that between 1997 and 2002, 1070 of the 1734 applications for land use change were successful, in other words, a 60% success rate. 

The government does not have regulations on the proportion of the land that is used for farming, and with the low threshold on land use change, zoning plans for agriculture exist in name only.

There also exists loopholes in Town Planning Board’s regulations. Private land that has been excluded from the Development Permission Areas Plan (i.e. the first version of the Outline Zoning Plan (OZP) cannot be regulated, leading to the rise of numerous brownfield site issues, such as the fly-tipping in idle farmland in Pui O in 2015. 

As for farmland that has been included in the district plan blueprint, the government has been ineffective in enforcement and tolerant of destructive practices. 

In fact, the above planning problems has been a topic of discussion for a long time, but government has been consistently indifferent, just as it has been in formulating the new agricultural policies.
Who’s gaining under this policy?

In Hong Kong Connection aired on 16 March 2015, the RTHK-produced Chinese TV programme on current affairs, Chairman of the Federation of Agricultural Associations of Hong Kong Chan Kin-yip pointed out that this consultation paper reflects on the feedback given from his group to the government on agriculture policy and the concept of Agricultural Park.

The organization, which was established in 2013 to push for sustainable agricultural development in Hong Kong, comprises all members of the Chief Executive Election Committee from the agricultural and fisheries sector. They make up 60 of the 1200-person committee, and was elected by 159 industry representatives. 

The agricultural and fisheries sector has been receiving subsidy from the Ministry of Agriculture of China since 2009. Between 2009 and 2012, they have received a total of RMB2.2 billion in subsidy. To become eligible for subsidy, fishermen have to hold a fishing permit in China. Successful applicants could receive RMB600,000 to RMB700,000 in fuel subsidy. 

In the second round of consultations on political reforms, the agriculture and fisheries sector supported the August 31st decision by the NPC.

Profiteering in the name of development
Kwu Tung North development plan.

Plans for the development of the northeastern New Territories started as early as 1996. The government led the application for land-use change of a total of 333 hectares of farmland in Kwu Tung North and Fan Ling North for residential or commercial use, which will be used for the new town extensions of Fan Ling and Sheung Shui. Land was taken away from near ten thousand villagers who were then forced to move away. Former Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po and his wife also became a target for acquisition, and was going to be compensated with over $10 million. The development was an estimated $120 billion project, building 60,000 residential flats, with private housing taking the majority. 

The establishment of this plan had to go through Environmental Impact Assessment, deliberation by the Town Planning Board, and appropriation by the Legislative Council before it could go into action. Since pro-establishment legislators take up the majority seats in LegCo, it is hard to have the real public opinion reflected, hence preparation period is the major battleground for members of the public to prevent the project from going forward.

The Town Planning Board has the power over land use planning but it is chaired by a member of the Development Board, its members are either government officials, government-appointed, or those who do not reveal their identity to the public. 

Despite having 90% opposition rate and a total of 50,000 appeal letters and proposals, the North East New Territories development plan was still approved by the Town Planning Board.

In June 2014, the preliminary budget for the plan was quickly approved as Finance Committee chair Ng Leung-sing was filibustering, the same day on which there were protests and clashes outside LegCo.

In 2015, the government officially moved forward with the North East New Territories in-situ land exchange policy, in which land in two development zones is planned for private development. Under the scheme, if the land is larger than 4,000 sq.m. and is owned by a sole landlord, the landlord could apply for land use change from agriculture to high value-added uses, such as residential or commercial uses, but these land sites have to be vacated before April 2016. 

Land resumption proceedings in North East New Territories was set to begin in 2017, but the establishment of such policy encourages developers to force farmers out as early on as possible. 

It is believed that the Ping Che area, an area that was originally in the NE New Territories development plan but eventually excluded, will be included in the North New Territories development plan. 

Agriculture development does not only concern the interests of rural residents. In fact, it is linked to complex political and economic interests, beneath which lies all sorts of evil and injustice. All we can hope for is unity among people and the courage to challenge the authority to protect our city.

HKBU Editorial Board Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/busueb 


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