Insiders' Insights

Growing Green

Hong Kong’s new breed of organic farmers spills the beans on the issues surrounding the industry.   

Text by Tiffany Chan, photos by Samantha Sin
Special thanks to Wild Roots Organic for the location

The environment is a big issue for Fai Hui, who owns Wild Roots Organic in Sheung Shui. Hui worked in the technology and finance sector for more than a decade before he took what he describes as a “deep dive”, reading nearly 15 books about the impending global environmental crisis and going to work on a number of farms in Taiwan before starting his own in Hong Kong in 2011.

“I came to a conclusion that this is a fairly serious issue, and it’s something that’s going to [continue to] be over the next few decades and beyond. Agriculture contributes one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions. So much of the input of conventional farming is derived from oil – it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food, plus fuel, machinery, irrigation, transportation, refrigeration, pesticides and fertilisers,” he says.

As he learned more about farming and experienced its more harrowing aspects – the abundance of harmful chemicals, food safety issues, systemic problems – he decided something had to change. At Wild Roots Organic, Hui aims to grow seasonal organic produce. A certified Organic Inspector and Horticulturist, he also teaches organic farming courses at schools, offers consultation on urban rooftop farms and is the founder of website gogreenhongkong.com.

“I was astounded by the amount and types of chemicals they use,” Hui says. “They spray glyphosate, a common herbicide recently cited by WHO as a cancer-causing agent. Many are under the misconception that chemicals sprayed on the plant kill pests on contact, but they’re actually absorbed into the fibre and the plant releases the chemical. Farmers source other chemicals in China, where they use many illegal chemicals. That is a huge food safety issue. The Hong Kong standard hasn’t been updated in decades. It’s a scary world.”

Ray Lok is a co-founder of Evergreens Republic, one of Hong Kong’s few aquaponic farms. Aquaponics is a new concept even in the West, but Lok and his partner have spent four years experimenting with the system, which is based on the symbiotic relationship between plant and fish, balancing each of their ecosystems to ensure sustainability. Evergreens Republic keeps organically fed koi fish, pumping their waste into the water used to grow crops. The nutrient-rich water feeds the plants, which filter and clean the water ready to be pumped back into the fish tank, completing the cycle. The farm uses only 10 per cent of the water used in conventional farming.

“We tried hydroponics, but everything tasted so bad,” Lok says. “So we tried aquaponics, and the vegetables are like nothing I’ve tried before. We tried it in Kwun Tong, but failed many times. We visited several aquaponics farms in San Francisco. I’d never tried kale before, but once I tried it there, I didn’t know kale could taste so good. Aquaponics vegetables have more nutrition, so they’re softer and easier to bite.”

Johnny Wong operates Johnny’s Organic Farm in Yuen Long on a much less complex system. Surrounded by mountains and fields, the farm comprises three separate plots spanning a total of 60,000 sq ft. Like Hui and Lok, he’s a relative newcomer to farming, starting his enterprise in 2013. After taking a degree in hospitality in Australia and working in the finance and hotel industry, he found himself drawn to the tranquility of a more rural lifestyle. He gained experience on a working holiday helping out on a farm in Australia, then on a restaurant farm in Sheung Shui. Three years on, he’s become a familiar figure in the restaurant and farming industry, where he’s known as “the herb guy” for his niche edible flowers such as marigold and begonia, fresh herbs, microgreens and figs. He supplies restaurants such as NUR and Fish School.

“I didn’t like being stuck in the office,” he says. “A farm also comes with its own stresses, but it’s what I like to do. I want to grow something that people will appreciate and find delicious. Like someone might say, ‘If I eat honeydew [melon], I want to eat the Japanese ones’, so with herbs, I want people to know me as Johnny the herb guy or the fig guy.”

Organic farming has proliferated in Hong Kong in the past two decades and today over 130 farms have an organic certificate. Yet the term is largely misunderstood, Hui says. 

“An organic certification essentially means a promise to borrow this set of guidelines and implement these practices, but it relies heavily on integrity and there is no guarantee or effective mechanism for combating cheating. If you were to make it purely about testing, then it would be pass or no pass, it cannot be like that,” Hui asserts. “The term organic is about looking after the environment, encouraging biodiversity and a whole other slew of things that cannot be measured in a test. If you were to reduce it to a test, you would be killing off the important parts of it. It does mean there is a higher probability that your food is safe.”

Yet even with the growing demand for organic produce, supply in Hong Kong remains limited, lagging far behind Taiwan, Japan and the US.

“It’s hard to catch up, because a lot of Western theories can’t be applied here. It’s too hot, too humid. Being an organic farmer here is hard simply because a lot
of organic products can’t be imported,” Lok says.

For Wong, it’s the general landowners’ mentality that makes it hard. “Landlords don’t want to rent [to farmers because] they think their land is worth much
more if they convert it to property development or for industrial use. If I wanted to buy land, how many stalks of vegetables would I have to sell to make $10 million?” he says. “It’s always about making money off real estate. If everyone’s mentality is like this and landlords have this hope to make more money, it’s hard to turn this thing around. Farmland will slowly disappear.”

Hui shares his frustration. “The overall environment here is not conducive to anything other than finance or real estate,” he says. “If you want to do farming or art, it’s ridiculous. We need a rebalancing, otherwise they choke out all other activities. What we need for us to move ahead is investment in farmers. We need to grow farmers, encourage young people – not just people with parents who can buy them tractors and equipment; we need more than that. We cannot just have rich people.”

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