How does sourcing locally & seasonally influence the food security of Hong Kong?
We asked Dr Daisy Tam at our April Sustainability Breakfast Webinar
Food security is defined as people, at all times, having access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life. During these uncertain virus-affected times, food security has affected businesses and consumers and we have seen disruption of continuity in our supplies. Farmers are ploughing tonnes of vegetables back into the ground, pouring milk down the drains and leaving harvests unpicked due to shortages of labour. Our food system’s fragility has been exposed over the last few months since the pandemic began.
As a result, food supplies are unpredictable, inconsistent and subject to price volatility due to the economics of supply and demand. There are multiple reasons why we should consider looking at locally sourced alternatives. Here is a round-up from Food Made Good HK CEO, Heidi Spurrell, in a virtual ‘fireside’ chat with Assistant Professor Daisy Tam from Baptist University at this month’s Sustainability Breakfast.
Never has there been a better time to consider how we can support food security and benefit business by looking at options for sourcing our food locally, which often by its nature, means sourcing in-season.
What are the benefits to sourcing locally and seasonally?
Sourcing locally and seasonally means that your business is less dependent on imports which not only means that you will reduce your carbon footprint through shorter food miles and reduced emissions, but haulage and storage costs will be reduced too. You will get to know your farmer and be supporting the local community, supporting local livelihoods and businesses. Sourcing locally and in-season means that you’ll have the freshest, tastiest produce, grown in alignment with our natural environment.
Heard of the term hyperlocal? Grow some herbs and edible flowers in your own restaurant. Ultimately it’s a great way to give yourself a competitive edge, you can communicate the stories of your farmers and food with your diners.
We also refer to local and seasonal in relation to fish and seafood. We always encourage restaurants to use in-season seafood, which means that seafood is not caught during its growing/spawning season, so that fish stocks are able to replenish at a healthy rate.
Let’s understand what we mean by local and seasonal in a Hong Kong context
‘Local’ is a term which tends to vary according to geographic region. Hong Kong is a small place and we currently import roughly 95% of our produce, so in Hong Kong importing from nearby regions in China, for example, will still be considered local. Food Made Good HK identifies ‘local’ food in Hong Kong as being sourced within 500km of Hong Kong and while it’s not an exact science, it’s something we’ve understood from speaking with our chefs and local experts.
The definition of ‘seasonal food’ means that it is produced in season in the place where it is grown, therefore imported seasonal produce cannot technically be defined as seasonal on a Hong Kong menu. For example, imported British summertime strawberries cannot be described as ‘seasonal’ on a Hong Kong menu as this is not their season; however local Hong Kong strawberries can be defined as seasonal when they are featured on your menu during their growing season in Hong Kong (Nov-Feb).
The Hong Kong dynamics
In Hong Kong we produce very little of what we consume, despite having the highest ratio of restaurants per capita.
Local production of vegetables has dropped from 190,000 tonnes in 1980 to 15,500 tonnes in 2015, with self-sufficiency sliding from 30-50% in the 80’s, to a mere 1.2% in 2015. However, despite losing 10,000 hectares of agricultural land since the 1960’s, surprisingly we do have 2400 farms in Hong Kong, utilising just 60 square km of land, which includes 542 organic farms.
When it comes to meat and dairy products, less than 1% are produced in Hong Kong. We have a very small number of pig farms and no beef farms at all. From an environmental standpoint, it is worth noting that whilst we all accept that meat and dairy are big culprits when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, (330m tonnes of meat and 812m tonnes of dairy produced globally each year accounts for 60% of farming’s GHG emissions) conventionally these calculations do not include any of the emissions from haulage and imports, so for an import reliant city the actual emissions are even higher. In Hong Kong, it is estimated that 62% of GHG emissions are due to international trade. A HKU study finds that a change in diet in accordance with governmental dietary guidelines could achieve a 67% reduction in livestock-related emissions!
So how can we source more locally?
What can chefs in a small, highly urbanised city like Hong Kong do about increasing their local sourcing efforts, given there is limited supply, and consistency can also be a challenge?
Diversifying ingredients is key, go for heirloom and discover heritage breeds. By forging closer relationships with local, independent producers and suppliers you can learn about what is in abundance and what if any are unusual ingredients – chefs get creative and let the ingredients lead the way! Find out what is in season and plan your menus around availability – develop ‘seasonal specials’ and use seasonality charts to help.
Some independent farms in Hong Kong are even able to grow to order so build a solid relationship and work together to identify the right products and volume for you.
The growing season in Hong Kong is quite short, so identify ways to preserve seasonal produce and make it last longer, such as curing, smoking, fermentation and drying.
It is inevitable that some items will be imported so find out how these ingredients are produced, packaged and imported. Consider ways to redeem the environmental impact of some of this. In reality unless you are running a vegan restaurant it will be near impossible to source 100% local, so set some targets and to see if local is within your remit.
Refer to the Federation of Vegetable Marketing Co-operative Societies or the Vegetable Marketing Organisation to find out more about local and organic farms in Hong Kong. For local fish you can contact the Accredited Fish Farm Scheme which we wrote about last month.
In summary, the benefits to sourcing locally and seasonally mean that we have shorter supply chains and distribution networks which are easier to manage and potentially predict. It also means that through local and seasonal menu planning and agility, we can operate with more flexibility and seize opportunities in a challenging environment where unfortunately we can swing from too little supply as a result of broken supply chains to surplus stock as a result of reduced business. Diversity, adaptability and smart thinking are undoubtedly the way forward in making local and seasonal a business priority for your operation. Direct producer-consumer relationships mean you give autonomy back to the farmers. Visit farms, observe practices and convey this back to your diners.
Thank you Daisy for your insights and unquenchable passion for the opportunities, appetite and importance of local sourcing in Hong Kong. Read more about Daisy’s projects here: hkfoodworks.com
The Sustainability Breakfasts Series is a monthly gathering designed to educate and empower the Hong Kong foodservice community — chefs, restaurateurs, FOH, BOH, suppliers, and sustainability leads.
Inspired by our framework, the programme is curated to inspire the community, novel ways through which they can bring in small but significant changes to their sourcing choices, menu design, and supplies. We curate and organise talks delivered by sustainable food industry leaders, on various themes aligned to UN International Days and our three pillars Sourcing, Society & the Environment.