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Published: 10:44, December 31, 2021 | Updated: 10:41, January 05, 2022
Is urban food farming a priority?
By Oswald Chan
Published:10:44, December 31, 2021 Updated:10:41, January 05, 2022 By Oswald Chan

COVID-19 and climate change disrupt domestic and global food supply chains. That forces governments to review food security. Few have formulated comprehensive food security policies. Hong Kong relies on the Chinese mainland for its supply. Singapore has framed an urban food ecosystem. Oswald Chan reports from Hong Kong.

At the Central Economic Work Conference in early December, President Xi Jinping urged local governments to achieve food self-sufficiency to ensure grain security for the nation's 1.4 billion people.

The Hong Kong government unveiled its New Agriculture Policy in 2016 for the modernization and sustainable development of local agriculture. A Sustainable Agricultural Development Fund of HK$500 million ($64.1 million) was provided in 2016 to raise the competitiveness of the sector. As of the end of February 2020, the SADF had approved 300 projects under the farm improvement program as well as other research and development programs, providing grants totalling HK$105.2 million. An 80-hectare Agricultural Park was established at Kwu Tung South in the New Territories.

The agriculture and fisheries sector contributed less than 0.1 percent of gross domestic product and engaged 0.5 percent of the total workforce in 2018, according to Census and Statistics Department data.

Agri-tech activity

Hong Kong does not have a cohesive agricultural technology ecosystem. There are scattered plots of farmland for farmers to access a tiny market share through small-scale production, which deters investment and fails to attract talent.

Agricultural technology such as vertical farming, rooftop farming, aquaculture, and hydroponics, are alternatives to overcome the lack of scalable agricultural farmland.

According to Mathew Pryor, associate professor and head of the Landscape Architecture Division at the University of Hong Kong, about 60 rooftop farms and around 1,500 farmers have emerged in the city from 2008 to 2018. The numbers grow steadily each year, prompted by access to government funding programs.

Farm66 Investment is Hong Kong’s first indoor aquaponics farm using multilayer vertical farming for symbiotic aquaponics and an energy-efficient LED light spectrum, to make fresh produce that is free of pesticides and pollutants.

Singapore-based Sustenir Group entered Hong Kong in 2019 with a 25,000-square-feet (2,320-square-meter) controlled-environment agriculture facility in Tuen Mun. The startup’s patented farming system calibrates lighting, temperature, humidity, water, nutrients, and air to boost productivity and modify the taste and crunchiness of vegetables. The company leverages its proprietary artificial intelligence and robotic technology to constantly monitor the conditions and track the life cycle of plants.

Growgreen, a homegrown technology startup at the Hong Kong Science Park, manufactures a hydroponic smart grower with planting programs installed for different parameters such as the light spectrum, light intensity, water level, air/water temperature and nutrients, to facilitate the growth of different plants.

This compact greenhouse can grow vegetables 50 percent faster, and save up to 90 percent of water and other energy, while eliminating pollution risk. By cutting unnecessary transportation costs, it also reduces the carbon footprint.

Singapore’s ecosystem

Similar to Hong Kong, Singapore is densely populated, with less than 1 percent of its land dedicated to agriculture and producing less than 10 percent of its food supply.  

In 2019, Singapore announced its “Food Industry 4.0” vision to cultivate an agricultural technology ecosystem of research institutions, education, regulation, industry representation, quality assurance, international linkages, and funding to host incubators and accelerators.

An Agri Food Innovation Park began operating in the second quarter of 2021, aiming for 30 percent food self-sufficiency by 2030. The Seeds Capital enables food technology accelerators. The new Singapore Food Agency under the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment coordinates and implements the programs.

Singapore has attracted several leading food and agricultural companies to drive innovation. The education system, technology infrastructure, government policy support and funding, plus human capital are the pull factors for investments into Singapore. It has taken a holistic approach, integrating all stakeholders within a shared, common purpose.

Agricultural policy review

Industry experts call for the Hong Kong government to consider food security and sustainability a policy priority, and to adopt a holistic approach.

“The Hong Kong government does not see agricultural development as a high priority as the industry accounts for a tiny proportion of the city’s gross domestic product. Hong Kong does not have a crisis awareness that food supply may be disrupted,” said Lam Hon-ming, professor of life sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lam contrasted the situation of Hong Kong with Singapore and some mainland cities. “Singapore is acutely aware that food supply should be secure. In Hong Kong, food is almost entirely supplied by the Chinese mainland.

“Unlike Beijing, Shanghai or Singapore, Hong Kong has not formulated a road map for food self-sufficiency. There is no urgency for local food production. If the government formulates such a target, then policies may follow to realize this goal.” 

Daisy Tam Dic-sze, associate head and associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of Humanities and Creative Writing, agreed. “Singapore recognizes the importance of food security much earlier than Hong Kong. Singapore regards food security as a category of national security. It takes a proactive approach. Hong Kong is rather complacent.”

Tam said policy changes to land, funding, and education are needed to foster a productive agricultural technology sector. Taking rooftop farming as an example, Tam said, “It depends on whether the government can persuade developers to allow rooftop farming on their buildings. Or the government may revise legislation requiring developers to provide spaces for rooftop farming.”

Sustenir Group CEO Jack Moy agreed. “Our limitations would be the availability of building space, and the high costs of building a technologically advanced agriculture farm. As indoor vertical farming is a nascent industry, funding is critical to help businesses start, and more importantly, to scale, for the needs of a dense urban population.

“While the industry is ramping up, there also needs to be strong consumer education on the benefits of vertical farming.” 

Upgrade technology

Hong Kong should develop agricultural technologies of machinery, farming methods, or patent technology relevant to its highly urbanized environment and lack of large-scale agricultural farmland.

“The government may consider giving financial grants to research institutes, commercial organizations, and think tanks to develop such technologies,” suggested Tam, who emphasized imparting farming knowledge to the next generation. The old-generation farmers are no longer energetic enough to farm, while young people interested in farming do not have the knowledge, she said.

Sustenir’s Moy said: “Technology adoption in agriculture will enhance productivity and improve our ability to grow more with less, even without arable land. In land-scarce Hong Kong, it is ever more important to provide local communities a resilient food supply solution. We can reduce the carbon footprint too.”

Humphrey Leung Kwong-wai, founder and CEO of Growgreen, said Hong Kong has relatively little expertise in life sciences. “We have to work with universities to find potential recruits before they finish their postgraduate studies. The Hong Kong government can help us by granting salary subsidies for startups to nurture agricultural talent,” he said.

Leung said the government should attract international life-science companies to establish bases in Hong Kong. “Research and development are just the small part of the entire supply chain of the food industry. The commercialization of R&D depends on large conglomerates. The government has to link the innovative capability of startups to the commercialization heft of conglomerates.”

Greater Bay Area potential

In the view of CUHK scholar Lam, the first- and second-tier cities in Guangdong province follow the development path of Hong Kong, where agricultural farmland is sacrificed for residential and industrial development. The 11 cities of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area could collectively learn to apply and share new technologies for urban agriculture.

Lam recommended coordinated cross-border research in agricultural technology for scalability. “If joint research can be applied within the Greater Bay Area, then university professors will have more incentive to conduct the research. It will attract more young postgraduates to join the research team.”

“Artificial intelligence and automation technology can be leveraged by pooling data across the Greater Bay Area. The data collected at the regional level can predict crop yields and estimate costs as well as the feasibility of scaling technology. When there is scalability, it can attract investment and talent. Then we can evolve an ecosystem of agricultural technology,” Lam said.

As with so many other regional cooperation initiatives, without forceful overall supra-regional leadership to drive results, things can get mired in processes, meetings, hierarchies, and multiple bureaucracies. Effective orchestration and guidance toward desired outcomes can unleash the full power of the Greater Bay Area.

WHAT’S NEXT

  1. Formulate an ecosystem blueprint for food security.

  2. Review land policy and funding for agricultural technology investment.

  3. Attract and retain talent in the life sciences sector.

  4. Incentivize global food companies to base in HK.

  5. Coordinate Greater Bay Area cross-border research in agricultural technology for scalability.


Contact the writer at oswald@chinadailyhk.com


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