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International Journalism Honours Project 2014 By Joy Huo

SEEING THROUGH

ORGANIC Magazine April - May 2014 Issue 01


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About the magazie

SEEING THROUGH

ORGANIC Magazine April - May 2014 Issue 01

Supervisor Victor Fung Reporter Huo Jiayu Joy Student No 12005525 Publish Date 2014. 5. 2

Department of Journalism School of Communication Hong Kong Baptist University, Kowloon Tong

I welcome your views and questions about the magazine. Write to me at joyhuojiayu@gmail.com or contact me at 6798-2660

Seeing Through Organic Issue 1 May 2014


Editor’s Note

EDITOR’S NOTE Joy Huo

It is sometimes a bit stressful to write an investigative story, but it always excites me. On this occasion, I was really lucky to meet some farmers who were willing to talk about the hidden side of the organic market, but it was not easy to build up trust with them and persuade them to talk about some of the more sensitive issues. I tried to visit as many organic farms and organic markets as possible in the New Territories and carry out a little research before I started to do interviews. Gathering background information paid off during interviews as my contributors seemed to respect the fact that I knew something about the industry and opened up a little more. I also visited some self- proclaimed organic strawberry farms on the mainland and found that most of them did not have any certification. There are a lot more certification centers on the mainland and the situation is more complicated. But not having unlimited time I decided to focus on the organic market in Hong Kong. The main story reveals certain “secrets” of organic farmers and also highlights frequent infringement of the regulations. I have also tried to explain the reasons behind some of the malpractices which have been the subject of reports by agricultural experts. The second story covers some of the public misconceptions about organic food. Finally I have presented an opinionative summary where I share some important facts and figures with you.

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Table of Contents


TABLE OF CONTENTS PHOTOSLIDE Organic Farms in Hong Kong

MAIN STORY

SIDEBAR

OPINION

NUMBERS

The Hidden Side of Organic Markets

Is Organic Necessarily Better?

Agricultural Development Declines

Something about Organic

06 14 38 44 46 16 // Organic Strawvberries 22 // Self-reserved Seeding 26 // MixIing the Spurious with the Genuine 28 // Vegetable Smuggling 30 // Current Regulation 32 // Unreasonable Price 34 // Necessity of Organic Certification 36 // Tackling the Issue


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PhotoSlide Organic Farms in Hong Kong

“CHOOSING A PLACE FOR ORGANIC FARM NEED TO CONSIDER THE SOIl, WATER AND SURROUNDING ENVIRONMENT.” - Mr Law Lam-hon, an organic farmer


PhotoSlide Organic Farms in Hong Kong

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PhotoSlide Organic Farms in Hong Kong


PhotSlide Organic Farms in Hong Kong

“ORGANIC AGRICULTURE RELIES ON ECOLOGICAL PROCESSES, BIODIVERSITY AND CYCLES ADAPTED TO LOCAL CONDITIONS, RATHER THAN THE USE OF INPUTS WITH ADVERSE EFFECTS.” - Hong Kong Food and Health Bureau

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PhotoSlide Organic Farms in Hong Kong

“ONLY VERIFIED ORGANIC SEEDS WITHOUT GENETICALLY MODIFIED, CHEMICAL TREATMENT COULD BE USED FOR ORGANIC FARMING.” - Pro Jonathan Wong Woonchung, the director of Hong Kong Organic Resource Center


PhotoSlide Organic Farms in Hong Kong

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PhotoSlide Organic FarmsKong in Hong Kong 12 Organic farms in Hong 02 Gallery

HOW ABOUT IN


PhotoSlide Organic Farms in Hong Kong

REALITY?

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Main Story

As the popularity of organic agriculture increases, about a quarter of local farmers have decided to give up traditional farming and turn to organic. However, it seems that compliance with organic guidelines and the enforcement of regulations remains minimal in the drive for greater profits.

THE HIDDEN SIDE OF ORGANIC MARKETS


Main Story

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MAIN STORY


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Mian Story Organic Strawberries

“WHAT WE NEED IS CONSCIENCE NOT CERTIFICATION.” - Mr Dou Zui-keung, a local organic farmer

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acing the onslaught of a growing number of cheaper agricultural products imported from the mainland, Mr Yu Soeng-Kwong has been suffering greater and greater losses. He learned from his peers that selling organic vegetables was much more profitable, so he finally decided to start practicing organic farming. However, making the change did not make Mr Yu’s life easier. Having undergone a radical change in his farming methods he also went through the rigorous procedure to obtain organic certification. Since establishing himself as an organic farmer his biggest headache has been trying to compete with a number of farmers who sell their self-proclaimed organic vegetables at a much lower price.


Main Story Organic Strawberries

In research conducted by the Hong Kong Organic Resource Center (HKORC) in March 2014 it was said that nearly 80 percent of stalls in 90 street markets were selling self-proclaimed organic vegetables without any official organic certifications. Higher profits have lured farmers into taking the risk of selling fake organic vegetables which have been palmed off on a lot of unsuspecting customers. The lack of regulation and control of organic produce and surging prices are two major causes of the chaos in the organic market. In Hong Kong there are two main organizations which provide organic certification and have the right to issue green labels - the Hong Kong Organic Resource Center (HKORC) and the Hong Kong Organic Certification Center

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(HKOCC). Certificates issued by these two centers have to be renewed annually with a payment of HK$ 3000 and HK$ 10,000 respectively. Farmers who successfully achieve certification agree to adopt the organic standard, growing produce without using chemical fertilizers and pesticide, genetically modified organisms, preservatives, additives and irradiation, according to the Food and Health Bureau. However, the reality can be very different and complex as the organic verification system is fraught with loopholes and grey zones. Can customers have any confidence in the organic certification system and those green labels? To what extent are organic farmers complying with guidelines or is it all just about fake products and high prices.


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Mian Story Organic Strawberries

Organic strawberries in Taipo Farmers’ Market

ORGANIC STRAWBERRIES Being a popular fruit in Hong Kong, strawberries have become one of the most profitable products in organic agriculture and their retail price can be as much as three or four times the cost. Normally regular strawberries cost around HK$30 per pound while the price of organic can reach HK$80 or even HK$100 in Taipo Farmers’ Market which sells organic products every Sunday. “In recent years it has become problematic to produce strawberries in Hong Kong with the advent of warmer weather. It has also become even harder to grow organic strawberries when chemical fertilizers

and pesticides are prohibited,” said Mr Wong Ling, an organic farm owner in Kam Sheung Road Yuen Long. Having rented a stall in Taipo Farmers’ Market, Mr Dou and his wife sold their organic vegetables and fruits there every Sunday which have become their main source of income. “To guarantee sales and revenue we must produce strawberries that suit customers’ taste – sweet, big in size, a bright red colour with an inviting smell,” said Mr Dou Zui-keung, an organic farmer in Yuen Long with over ten years of farming experience. Attracted by higher profits, many organic farmers


Main Story Organic Strawberries

have chosen to take a risk and use forbidden chemicals, “Spraying plant hormone is the key thing,” said Mr Dou. He suddenly lowered his voice when he mentioned the word “hormone” and glanced around cautiously. Pausing for a few seconds, he continued “In fact, strawberries would normally taste quite sharp and be light pinky red in color, if they were grown in a completely organic way”. “To make the strawberry taste sweet and look better, almost all farmers spray with hormone during the blossoming period even if they have received organic certification,” Mr Dou said in a low voice. “What we need is conscience not certification,” said Mr Dou. Mr Dou used to produce plenty of strawberries for sale during December to April which helped him make a lot of money. However, unable to compete with people who were breaking the regulations he decided to follow suit about two years ago. He also revealed that some strawberry gardens

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which are open to the public to pick strawberries would hire professionals from the mainland. These people would bring in all kinds of forbidden fertilizers and pesticides to Hong Kong and take care of the strawberry gardens during the blossoming and harvesting season. Mr Cheung, who refused to disclose his full name, has worked in a self-proclaimed organic strawberry garden in Fanling, N. T. for two years, and is familiar with the use of different hormones. “The plant hormone that we use for strawberries is called gibberellin (GA), which can regulate the growth of plants. It has been widely used on non-organic strawberries in Taiwan, mainland China and other places,” said Mr Cheung. “Dissolving a pill of gibberellin into approximately 200L water then sprinkling it on their buds only once during the blooming period can improve the strawberries’ color, shape and taste,” he added. Mr Cheung said that spraying this plant hormone could also increase the length of the stem, enabling

“SPRAYING PLANT HORMONE IS THE KEY THING.” - Mr Dou Zui-keung, an organic farmer Fertilizers and pesticides for planting strawberries


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Mian Story Organic Strawberries

“SINCE THERE ARE MANY TYPES OF PLANT HORMONES WHICH REQUIRE DIFFERENT TEST METHODS AND EQUIPMENT, THE COST OF ORGANIC TESTING WOULD BE TOO HIGH.” - Prof. Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, the director of Hong Kong Organic Resource Center

the strawberries to better absorb sunlight without being covered by their leaves. “The hormone costs HK$30 per package, either in liquid or powder. You cannot find it in Hong Kong but you can easily buy it in some shops which sell pesticides or fertilizers in mainland China,” he added Mr Wong Ling, who used to work for an organic farm in Sheung Shui, said consumers would not buy strawberries which are expensive and not sweet. “It would be hard to maintain the operation of a strawberry garden, not to say attract more investors if strawberries can not be sold at a good price,” he

added. In fact, most organic farms or strawberry gardens have registered with AFCD, agreeing to practice organic growing procedures and have successfully applied for organic certification from HKORC. Professor Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, the director of HKORC said inspectors would collect soil and water from their certified farms and test them for heavy metal, pesticides and bacteria, but not hormone levels. “Since there are many types of plant hormones which require different test methods and equipment,


Main Story Organic Strawberries

the cost of organic testing would be too high,” said Prof Wong. “I admit this works against maintaining organic standards,” he said. But Prof Wong believes that organic strawberries produced in Hong Kong are much smaller than those imported from California. Therefore, it seems unlikely that local farmers are using plant hormone. Mr Wong Ling said it was not difficult for the certification authorities to detect the use of plant hormone, but they would seem to prefer to turn a blind eye to these violations.

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“Sometimes the inspectors inform farmers that they are about to do the test which will obviously result in the suspended use of the hormone,” Mr Wong added. Mr Marcel Chan Yuk-ming, a Hong Kong registered dietitian from Tetra Nutritional Consultation Centre, said that plant hormones would only affect humans to a small extent due to the different structure of plant hormones compared with animal hormones. However, he believed that even though there is no evidence to prove the negative effect of using a small amount of plant hormone, it should not be used in organic agriculture.


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Main Story Self-reserved Seeding

Seed plants cultivated by the FEDMCS

SELF-RESERVED SEEDING According to the AFCD’s guideline, only verified organic seeds without genetically modified, chemical treatment could be used for organic farming. “Farmers are required to keep the receipts of all seeds, fertilizers and pesticides that they have purchased in order to renew their certificate next year. Inspectors from certification centers will also go through them, if necessary,” said Prof Wong from HKORC. Despite HKORC having provided a well-designed organic certification system and a set of standards, a lot of grey zones in the organic market still exist. This has probably helped farmers to produce fake organic products and profit more than honest farmers. “Writing fake receipts for our customers is a piece of cake, even turning non-organic into organic ones,”

said, Mr Wong Ling, who also owns a seed company in the New Territories. “It is just a business deal. Why not provide the receipts that farmers need if we are able to do so?” he said. Besides, seed sellers are good at playing with words on the receipts to help organic farmers avoid being detected for violations. Mr Wong said writing that “the seeds are produced without using genetic-engineering techniques” on the receipt doesn’t mean that those seeds are free from genetic pollution. “Inspectors would not look into detail and even pay much attention to each sentence written on each receipt,” he added. “The description on the documents which are


Self-reserved Seeding Main Story

“WRITING FAKE RECEIPTS FOR OUR CUSTOMERS IS A PIECE OF CAKE, EVEN TURNING NON-ORGANIC INTO THE ORGANIC ONES.” - Mr Wong Ling, a seed company owner

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Main Story Self-reserved Seeding

submitted to the certification center can be very different from the real situation. It is not difficult to create fake materials and documents in the agricultural industry,” said Mr Wong. Meanwhile, “self-reserved” is a useful defense when seeds are found out to be polluted or access recommended chemical limits, meaning that we cultivate the seed plants by ourselves instead of purchasing from the shop, according to Mr Wong. Since organic seeding, such as tomato and strawberry, often cost more than double regular seeds, many farmers would prefer buying non-organic ones from the mainland. “As the seed company also needs to obtain organic certification which requires an annual fee, buyers have to bear a comparatively higher price,” Mr Dou Zuikeung explained. He said regular strawberry seedlings cost him HK$1 each while organic ones can cost up to HKD2.5. Even though farmers should have used organic seeds according to the standard, Mr Dou bought his regular seedlings from the mainland and this was never detected by inspectors. Based on the research conducted by the Hong Kong Produce Green Foundation, only 10 percent of organic

Most farmer s have to use seeds from foreign countries

farms are using organic seeds while the other 90 percent are using regular ones. “When inspectors question the source of those seedlings, we can just simply claim they are “selfreserved seeds”. This explanation is always accepted and very useful when filling in the application form for renewing the certificate,” Mr Wong said. To renew the certificate, farmers have to pay a certain fee, submit application forms and a series of documents including all trading records to the certification center once a year. Prof Wong from HKORC said it would be impossible for our inspectors to find out the source if farmers claimed that self-reserved seeds were purchased from other places. “Regular seeds are also acceptable for organic farming because it is quite hard to buy organic seeds in Hong Kong” he added. He encouraged farmers to used self-reserved to ensure the new plants were purely organic, but this should not used to cover up the use of chemically treated seeds. Mr Wong said he has been using dyed cucumber seeds for a long time. “It is more convenient for us to use dyed seeds even though it is not permitted,” said Mr Wong. Dyed seeds usually went through chemical treatment, adding preservative and colour on their surface to extend the shelf life and increase the ability of insect resistance. “This is definitely not acceptable according to organic standards,” said Prof Wong. “The chemical in the dyed seeds will decompose into the soil within a few weeks, so it is very unlikely be discovered by the inspectors who only come once a year,” he added. “HKORC only revoked one certification in the past year because chemical pesticide was found in a farmer’s soil and water, but we haven’t discovered the use of dyed seeds until now,” said Prof Wong.


Self-reserved Seeding Main Story

Seed plants cultivated in the nursery

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Main Story Mixing the Spurious with the Genuine

MIXING THE SPURIOUS WITH THE GENUINE On September 1 last year, a member of staff from HKORC, pretended to be a buyer and went to buy some vegetables from a stall in Tai Kiu Market in Yuen Long after reviewing a complaint call. “The seller told our staff member that 28 varieties of organic vegetable (including water convolvulus) they were selling had been certified by our center,” said Prof Wong from the HKORC. The staff member made a visit to the farm and found that they only produced a small amount of organic vegetables. “The person in charge of the farm explained that it was due to recent bad weather,” Prof Wong added. However, when our staff member discovered that there was no water convolvulus, they farm finally admitted buying most organic vegetables from other non-organic farms.

Driven by profits, many farmers are attempting to pass off fish eyes for pearls, selling non-organic products as organic ones at a higher price. Miss Judy, Kiu Kin-yan, the executive manager of The Federation of Vegetable Marketing Co-operative Society (FEDMCS), with her team members, manages the Farmer’s Markets in Tai Po Tai and Tuen Mun. She said FEDMCS have cancelled some contracts with a few farmers because the heavy metal content in some of their agricultural products exceeded the limit. “Some organic farmers would link up with regular farmers by using their vegetables and then share the profit, therefore, both farmers can earn more money,” she said. “We have not advised the public of this because we want to eventually persuade these farmers to revert to practicing regular agriculture,” she added.


Mixing the Spurious with the Genuine Main Story

“SOME ORGANIC FARMERS WOULD LINK UP WITH REGULAR FARMERS BY USING THEIR VEGETABLES AND THEN SHARE THE PROFIT, THEREFORE, BOTH FARMERS CAN EARN MORE MONEY.” - Miss Judy, Kiu Kin-yan, the executive manager of the Federation of Vegetable Marketing Co-operative Society

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Main Story Vegetable Smuggling

“SOME SALESMEN IN THESE MARKETS, EVEN WITH CERTIFICATION, WOULD PALM OF SMUGGLED REGULAR VEGETABLES AS ORGANIC PRODUCE FROM NEW TERRITORIES AREA.” - Mr Yuen Cheong, the president of Hong Kong Imported Vegetable Wholesale Merchants Association

VEGETABLE SMUGGLING “Organic farmers have a number of illegal ways to gain profits”, said Mr Law Lam-hon, owner of Elimcooching Organic Farm. “Some of my friends who produce organic vegetables in Hong Kong also own more farms in the mainland,” Mr Law revealed. “They smuggle their organic produce back to Hong Kong and sell it in local markets or offer them to their local customers. In this way, they evade Hong Kong Custom official’s supervision, as well as reducing the cost,” Mr Law added. Mr Yuen Cheong, the president of Hong Kong Imported Vegetable Wholesale Merchants Association, said vegetable smugglers would transport mainland vegetables through Lo Wu border, and then meet their buyers near Fanling and Sheung Shui MTR stations early in the morning. “Agricultural products, whether organic or non-

organic, would be delivered to local wet markets, mainly in Shams Shui Po, Tai Kok Tsui and Sai Wan,” said Mr Yuen. “Some salesmen in these markets, even with organic certification, would palm off smuggled regular vegetables as organic produce from the New Territories area,” Mr Yuen added. He said smugglers would pack vegetables in cardboard boxes and then deliver them to Hong Kong one or two boxes at a time. It was legal for people to bring in a small amounts of agricultural products when crossing the border, according to Mr Yuen. However, even though it has been a serious problem for many years, the Hong Kong custom officers will only take action when they receive reports or complaints that such vegetables are being sold, Mr Yuen added.


Vegetable Smuggling Main Story

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Main Story Current Regulation

CURRENT REGULATION The loopholes in the present organic market are mainly due to the lack of legislation that demand sellers to register for organic certification before selling their produce. “There is no legal consequence for anyone, who does not apply for any certification, who claims that they are selling organic products,” said Mr Leung Chi-wen, an experienced organic farmer who has been devoting himself to organic education for many years. “Farmers or sellers can argue that they have their own organic standard which is different from organic certification center,” Mr Leung added. Though there are few organic certifications centers in Hong Kong that can provide a validation service, their accreditation system and issued labels are not supported by law or regulated by the government. According to the document from the Legislative Council Secretariat and Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene Department in 2013, the government said that there was no immediate need for such legislation because the misuse of organic labels certified by independent certification centers was not a serious breach of food safety. Until now, only when people who have obtained organic certification from two centers, and are promoting totally nonorganic produce or uncertified varieties, can be prosecuted by the Customs,

based upon the Trade Description Ordinance. Under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance, any person who in the course of business supplies or offers to supply goods with a false trade description commits a criminal offence. The maximum penalty upon conviction is a fine of $500,000 and imprisonment for five years. However, according to an email reply from the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department, there were only two cases of selling fake organic produce during 2013 and 2014 and one of the plaintiffs was fined HK$2500. Many farmers and organization are calling for the regulation and mandatory labelling of organic produce. Miss Kiu from FEDMCS said it was not difficult to establish laws for the organic market but that they would be hard to implement. “It is impossible for the government to hire a large group of inspectors to monitor the whole organic market,” she said. “Inspectors have to visit all markets to collect samples, then conduct lab tests, and then contact retailers and seek the sources of all fake organic produce, which would be time consuming,” said Miss Kiu. This was also the reason why HKORC could only prosecute a few violators every year, but there should be more, she added.


Current Regulation Main Story

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“THERE WILL BE NO LEGAL CONSEQUENCE FOR ANYONE, WHO CLAIMS THAT THEY ARE SELLING ORGANIC PRODUCTS.” - Mr Leung Chi-wen, an organic farmer and educator


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Main Story Unreasonable Price

“MOST FARMERS WILL PREFER TO THROW AWAY THEIR VEGETABLES RATHER THAN SELL AT A LOWER PRICE.” - Mr Wong Ling, an organic farmer


Unreasonable Price Main Story

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UNREASONABLE PRICE The increasing price of organic products is an incentive that encourages farmers to conduct organic farming. But the temptation of higher profits has meant that more farmers have been breaking the rules. “The price of organic vegetables is surging dramatically,” said Mr Kenneth Law Kao-ho, market manager of Vegetable Marketing Organization (VMO). “Take lettuce for example, it was sold at around HK$20 per catty three years ago, but has reached HK$30 to HK$40 this year,” he said. Miss Kiu from FEDMCS said they wouldn’t interfere with the price of produce in all Farmers’ Markets even some farmers tried to sell their lettuce in HK$50 per catty in one market in Hong Kong Island. Research conducted by the Legislative Council Secretariat and Food Safety and the Environmental Hygiene Department indicated that the price of organic products is often 50% higher according to interviewees’ experiences. Samantha Lam, a middle-aged consumer, would go to the Taipo Farmers’ Market to buy tomato, red leaf and red romaine for salad every Sunday. She said the price in the market was already much lower than in most supermarkets.

Organic Farmer Mr Wong Ling also agreed that the price of organic vegetables has become unreasonably high in recent years. He believes that it was not justifiable, even in relation to increasing costs. “The high price will encourage us to produce less because we can sell a smaller quantity at a higher price. Most farmers will to prefer throw away their vegetables rather than sell at a lower price,” he said. Mr Wong felt upset about this situation as he thought it would not be propitious for the development of the local organic industry, and indirectly encourages vegetable smuggling and other violations by organic farmers. “At the same time, customers have to purchase more expensive organic food than before,” he added. “Agricultural products selling in Farmers’ Markets are much cheaper than in supermarkets, people do not often realize these anomolies,” Mr Wong explained. Supermarket suppliers who offer organic products are required to pay a shelf fee which local farmers cannot possibly afford. Therefore, those products are usually imported from foreign countries or mainland China which lead to expensive organic vegetables in supermarkets.


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Main Story Necessity of Organic Certification

NECESSITY OF ORGANIC CERTIFICATION Until 2004, there were 452 registered farms which had agreed to follow the principles of organic farming, according to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Debarment (AFCD), however, only 112 of them have gained organic certification. In Hong Kong, not all organic farmers apply for certification even though they are actually practicing organic farming because the application process and the fee have become a burden, according to Miss Kiu from FEDMCS. “Since some farmers are illiterate, they need our help when filling out the application forms, drawing the floor plans, and taking pictures of their growing methods,” said Miss Kiu. “It takes some farmers three to four months to deal with the whole renewing process,” she added. According to the HKORC, farmers are required to keep a diary log every day, recording what seeds, fertilizers and pesticides they have used. They also need to keep all receipts and records for inspection if needed. “They may spend more time on handling the paper work than farming,” said Miss Kiu and she believed it was also the main reason that deterred farmers from applying for organic certification. Even if FEDMCS provides each organic farmer with a HK$2000 subsidy - two thirds of the total fee to apply or renew the organic certificate, some farmers still found it too troublesome and time consuming, Miss Kiu said. Sometimes, the certification was used as a tool for farmers to build up a relationship with new customers.

After few years when farms have a certain number of stable customers, they would give up renewing the organic certificates, Miss Kiu added. Organic farmer Mr Wong Ling believed that the certification system is helping big enterprises, such as supermarkets, rather than organic farmers. “If consumers purchase vegetables from farmers without middlemen, they don’t need to pay the extra amount of money which goes to agents and supermarkets’ pockets,” said Mr Wong. According Mr Law from VOM, all produce needs to be packed and tagged with green labels in their organisation before selling it in the supermarkets. “We have to buy organic produce from local farmers at a price that lower than the market price, as we need to hire a group of people for wrapping and transportation,” said Mr Law. Rather than setting a series of standards, Mr Wong Ling suggested the government should provide more help in building direct relationships between organic farms and consumers. Prof Wong from HKORC said it is hard to build up relationships as very few people would have time to visit their farms and understand their operation especially in a busy city like Hong Kong. “Therefore, an organic certification from an independent company is necessary,” he added. Prof Wong emphasised that the certification system was not trying to push organic farmers to the edge; instead, help them to sell their vegetables at a fair price.


Necessity of Organic Certification Main Story

“THEY MAY SPEND MORE TIME ON HANDLING THE PAPER WORK THAN FARMING.” - Mr Wong Ling, an organic farmer

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Main Story Tackling the Issue

TACKLING THE ISSUE “It is difficult for inspectors without experience and knowledge of organic operations to discover irregularities through observation and questioning,” said Prof Wong. He said the lack of professional inspectors is the main reason why malpractice of organic farmers has not often been exposed. “Degrees in farming are not available in local universities, which leads to a shortage of agricultural specialists in Hong Kong,” he added. However, Dr Tsang Chan-On from the executive director of Hong Kong Organic agriculture and Ecological Research Association (HKAERA) pointed out that certification centers should be independent from the government to ensure their right to revoke the certificate if any violation were found. “When the certification center receives funds from the government, it may take the same stance as the government, such as loosing the standard to ensure the harvest of a new variety introduced by the AFCD, therefore, their decision will not be fair,” said Dr Tsang. Mr Steven Ho Chun-yin, who represents the agriculture and fisheries sector in Legco, said that the government has a responsibility to regulate the organic market as well as educate people with a basic knowledge of what is organic. “They should provide guidelines for consumers to distinguish genuine organic products from fake ones,” said Mr Ho. Organic and non-organic products are now being produced in the same district or even share the same piece of land in Hong Kong, which hinders further development of organic farming, he added. He suggested that the government should make a long-term plan to reintegrate the farming lands, concentrating all organic farms in a particular area.


Tackling the Issue Main Story

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“CERTIFICATION CENTERS SHOULD BE INDEPENDENT FROM THE GOVERNMENT TO ENSURE THEIR RIGHT TO REVOKE THE CERTIFICATE IF ANY VIOLATION WERE FOUND.” - Dr Tsang Chan-On, the executive director of Hong Kong Organic agriculture and Ecological Research Association


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Siderbar Is Organic Necessarily Better

IS ORGANIC NECESSARILY BETTER? Organic products are considered to be better than traditional ones when it comes to safety, nutrition and being environmental friendly, but is this true?


Photo courtesy of NORHor

39 Is Organic Necessarily Better Sidebar

SIDEBAR

A research conducted by HKORC indicated that 59.3 percent of consumers have purchased organic products, mainly organic vegetables and fruits (90.9 percent).


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Sidebar Is Organic Necessarily Better


Is Organic Necessarily Better Sidebar

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“NO ONE CAN GUARANTEE THE SAFETY OF ORGANIC PRODUCE.” - Mr Leung Chi-wen, organic farming educator

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iss Tam How-yi, a housewife with three daughters, would go to the Farmers’ Market for some fresh organic vegetables every Sunday. “There are numerous stories about poisonous vegetables these days telling us that pesticide residues and the heavy metal content of some vegetables imported from the mainland exceeded local standards,” Miss Tam said. Considering the health of her family, Miss Tam always tries to purchase food with organic labels. Organic food is often associated with positive attributes such as being healthy, safe, environmental friendly and natural. Some advocates also say that organic production is better for the environment and kinder to animals. More and more shoppers seem convinced. Even though organic food typically costs more - sometimes a lot more - sales are steadily increasing in Hong Kong. The HKORC interviewed 616 Hong Kong citizens in September 2012. They found that 59.3 percent of them have purchased organic products, mainly


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Sidebar Is Organic Necessarily Better

organic vegetables and fruits (90.9 percent). The survey also showed that 85.5 percent of consumers believed that organic food benefit people’s health. Last year, 16.2 percent of organic consumers spent over HK$500 on green products each month. However, many experts said there was not enough evidence to prove any real advantage of consuming organic foods, and assumption that organic is equal to health and safety is considered to be naïve, wrong and potentially dangerous. “No one can guarantee the safety of organic produce,” said organic farmer Mr Leung Chi-wen. “Missing any step in making compost from poultry litter will increase the risk of bacteria in produce,” he added. Dr Tsang Chan-On, the executive director of Hong Kong Organic agriculture and Ecological Research Association said Salmonella and Escherichia coli have been found in organic vegetables from some foreign countries. “Since organic food won’t be sterilized by radiation or chemicals, they probably contain more microorganisms than mass produced food and they more easily rot away,” Dr Tsang said. “An organic certification only shows that the growing process meets the organic standard, but products are not necessarily safe,” he added. Local media Wenhui Pao reported that some organic farms near a recycling factory suffered from heavy metal pollution one year ago. Each kilogram of eggplant from those organic farms contained 0.3milligrams of Cadmium, which is three times higher than the acceptable level. Once Cadmium enters the body it cannot be removed which leads to carcinogenic effects, according to the Food and Health Bureau. Mr Marcel Chan Yu-ming, a state registered dietitian said organic products are safer only in terms of using less pesticide. “Currently all pesticide are water soluble so submerging vegetables for 30 minutes should dissolve the pesticide,” he said. At the same time, Mr Chan emphasized that the nutritional value of organic produce is same as regular food. Researchers from Stanford University analyzed 240 reports published in recent years and found out there was enough evidence to prove that organic food is


Is Organic Necessarily Better Sidebar

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more nutritious than conventional food. Prof Wong from HKORC said some of his research showed that organic vegetables such as carrots contained a higher level of vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants, but more studies are needed for a concrete conclusion. Most organic products selling in supermarkets are mainly imported from Japan, Europe and North Korea rather than locally grown. “Long distance transportation and refrigeration of organic products will increase the environmental cost of greenhouse gas, meaning that consuming imported organic products actually pollutes our environment,� said Prof Wong. Scholars from University of Oxford made a comparison of 71 academic papers about organic and conventional farming. The result showed that organic farming, without doubt, can protect biodiversity, as well as ease water and soil loss. Organic farming consumes less energy but takes up more land, therefore, it has lower productivity compare to traditional farming. Researchers also found that organic farming produces more greenhouse gas.


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Opionion Agricultural Development Declines

OPINION

AGRICULTURAL DEVELOPMENT DECLINES


Agricultural Development Declines Opionion

Under the pressure of high land rents, higher labour costs and increasing numbers of imported products, local farmers are now suffering. According to the statistics from AFCD, the local productive rate of vegetables is dropping sharply- from 2.5 percent in 2010 to 1.9 percent in 2012. The SAR government believes that there will not be any progress without regulation, but fail to see any urgency in for a new structured response. Many farmers and industry experts are feeling frustrated with the current agriculture policy and want the government to provide more help for organic farming. Taiwan unlike Hong Kong has firm agriculture import rates set by the government. Without this Hong Kong cannot maintain a stable price of local produce, leading to decreased motivation and less productivity from local farmers. Prof Jonathan Wong Woon-Chung, the director of HKORC said Hong Kong’s agriculture policy remain unchanged since the 70s’ and is outdated. “I cannot see any clear indication for agricultural development from our government,” he said. Farmers do not have enough confidence in investing more money to increase farm size or purchase new equipment because developers, government and landowners can retake land whenever they want, Pro Wong said. Without doubt, organic farming brings new hope to local farmers and has attracted more than a quarter of traditional farmers to go through the transition. Though the AFCD has tried to offer technical support to organic farmers, their effort was insufficient from most farmers’ point of view. The AFCD has introduced new varieties to organic farmers, hoping to increase the value of local produce.

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“Even though they tell farmers that a sweet melon can be sold for HK$150 I won’t take the risk as the AFCD cannot guarantee the price and the sale at the end,” said organic farmer Mr Wong Ling. Rather than introducing new varieties, the government should integrate the farming lands and fix the property of land use so that farmers can concentrate on growing without worrying about land resumption. Also offering preferential policies for hiring foreigner workers may help with the shortage of local famers. Reducing intermediation fees and providing training for retirees who are interested in farming will also help. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for the government to carry out a series of effective policies at least in the short term, but making use of advanced technology and the Internet will definitely increase efficiency and reduce certain costs. Doctor Tsang Chan-On, the executive director of Hong Kong Organic agriculture and Ecological Research Association is developing a mobile App that helps farmers manage their farms remotely. He believes that technology can play an important role in helping traditional agriculture when we cannot rely on the government. The Internet and social networking should be a tool for local farmers to update cultivation techniques, as well as promote their products. Purchasing vegetables from farmers online rather than going to the supermarket would save consumers’ time and money, at the same time, bringing greater benefit to farmers. While the government is not willing to take an active role in developing agriculture, farmers themselves can do more to survive and keep pace with the times in the information age.


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Numbers Something about Organic

SOMETHING ABOUT

ORGANIC Price of local organic agricuture in 2014 (Sample number: 21)

59.3%

of Hong Kong consumers have purchased organic products in 2012. 10-15HK$/Catty 15-20HK$/Catty 20-25HK$/Catty Above 25HK$/Catty

85.5% of consumers believe that organic food benefits people’s health.

500

is the average amount of money that 16.2 percent of organic consumers would spend on green products each month.

70%

of organic farmers believe that produce can be sold in a higher price mainly due to organic certification.

81.7%

of vegetable stores in 90 wet markets do not have any organic certification but claim that they are selling organic produce.


Something about Organic Numbers

75%

of agricultural products were transported, stored, processed and sold together with non-organic ones.

How Vegetable Sellers Demonstrate to Customers That Their agricultural Produce are Organic (Sample Number: 72)

85.7%

of local farmers choose to apply the organic certification from Hong Kong Organic Resource Center rather than USDA in U.S or IMO, JAS and CERES in mainland China.

Orally self-proclaimed With the word “organic” on the shop sign

With the word “organic” on the price tag

With the word “organic” on the package

Number of vegetable Stall with Organic Certification and Self-proclaimed from 2008 to 2014(Sample number: 220, 515, 706, 470, 340, 409, 440) With certification

Number of Vegetable Stall with Organic Certification and Self-proclaimed from 2008 to 2014 (Sample number: 220, 515, 706, 470, 340, 409, 440)

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self-proclaimed


Photography Joy Huo

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Seeing through organic  

Seeing through organic  

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