SEED Mr. Angus Lam: Organic Farming and Hong Kong Agricultural Development

Entry Experience

Angus who was born and raised in Hong Kong, said with a smile that he inadvertently entered the agricultural industry. He studied environmental science at university and found agriculture very interesting, especially the growth of crops, which goes through a series of procedures and processes from seeding, planting to harvesting, then returns to the original starting point: seeds. Therefore, after graduation, he hoped to choose an agriculture-related job. However, he lamented that agriculture was such a large system that few people were discussing in Hong Kong at that time. Even though he wanted to know more, the information was very limited. After moving from a summer farming tutor to a full-time employee in Produce Green Foundation, he has officially stepped into the agricultural industry.

Recalling the first time he planted rice seedlings, he walked barefoot into the field, planted the seedlings with his own hands, and accompanied farmer to lead the buffalo to plow the field. After a few days, the seedlings turned green, stood upright and swayed with the wind. The whole experience gave him, as an urban person, a great and indescribable feeling. It made him desire to stay in this environment and laid a foundation of devoting himself to agriculture.

When he first started working in the industry, he felt inferior that, especially after working in the field, his knowledge and skills did not correspond to what he had studied at university, and his previous cognition was even subverted. But after several years of learning and deposition, he began to master his work. In retrospect, it was only after his accumulated work experience from the Produce Green Foundation and the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) that he was able to co-found the Sustainable Ecological Ethical Development Foundation (SEED) with eight other organic farms and promote horizontal cooperation and development in the industry.

SEED and Hong Kong Agriculture 3.0

As the chairman, Angus pointed out that the development of organic agriculture encountered certain bottlenecks at that time. They hoped that they could develop the industry further through the cooperation between peers. With the support of the KFBG, SEED was formally established in 1999 and has assisted in opening organic farms, renting farms for farmers to cultivate, and organizing farmer training. In addition, SEED also brings farmers to visit farms with different business concepts, which not only helps farmers of different backgrounds gather together for discussion, but also invites scientists to give professional advice. After registering as a charity, the organization of projects has become the main task of SEED, including the Hong Kong Agriculture 3.0 project in recent years.

Hong Kong Agriculture 3.0 reflects the project team’s own understanding of the modern development of local agriculture. According to the analysis and understanding of the project team, Hong Kong Agriculture 1.0 refers to the period after the 1950s and before the 1980s, when agricultural production capacity was relatively high and vegetable supply could meet about 40% of local demand. This can be regarded as the golden age of local vegetables. In the late 1980s, local vegetable production shrank rapidly. Farmers took hold of consumers’ concerns about food safety and environmental protection, and organic farming began to sprout. This period is called Agriculture 2.0. When the industry reached 2.0, a new direction of development emerged, but at the same time the lead became smaller and smaller, and was divided into two communities: conventional and organic. Among the industry chain at that time, there is new demand for the supply of seeds, fertilizers, machinery, etc., but the overall supporting facilities have been shrinking, and there is even no local supply. There used to be biological control, local composting, and livestock breeding, but now they are not easily found. As a result, agriculture is becoming more and more difficult to engage in. All these make him hope to reconnect different stakeholders as well as the industry chain. Therefore, he and his partner, the Land Education Fund, proposed the Agriculture 3.0 project framework to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), hoping to explore projects with aim to break down the barriers within the industry and the industry chain, and through government funding, to fill in the parts that are not covered by the current policy.

Sharing knowledge and building platform are the focus of Agriculture 3.0. Since Hong Kong’s agriculture is mainly composed of family farms, the farm area is generally less than about 3372 square meters, and they do not have enough manpower and resources to practice high-input new technologies. Therefore, through the model of agricultural community college, the project actively promotes methods replacing high-input farming and makes production methods knowledgeable, and at the same time, collects traditional experience, including how to plan and manage farms, conserve soil, improve fertilizer efficiency, etc. In addition, the project provides opportunities for conventional and organic farmers to communicate and interact with each other, so that young farmers can learn and inherit the local experience of Hong Kong farming.

Organic Farming

Angus said that organic farming was launched in Hong Kong in the late 1980s. The poisonous vegetable incidents at that time prompted local environmental groups to try out a new production model that is conducive to improving the environment and health: organic farming, which means that the planting method conforms to nature and respects animal without using pesticides and fertilizers, etc. Simply speaking, its essence can be a return to the local traditional farming methods in the 1950s that the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides was not popularized.

Produce Green Foundation was the first organic farm established. Later, in response to market demand and policy encouragement, the number of organic farms gradually increased. In order to facilitate management, the AFCD and representatives of various parties held a seminar. Angus also participated in the discussion at that time. After the meeting, they decided to refer to international experience and set up an organic certification system. The Hong Kong organic certification system was established in the early 2000s. Certification can not only increase consumer trust, but also help clarify responsibilities of all parties. If food safety issues unfortunately occur, there are labels for identification and tracking.

In the 1970s, international organizations promoted organic farming with the original intention to sell local products locally, not only to cater for the interests of small farmers, but also to protect the environment. Organic farming has been promoted in Hong Kong for more than 30 years, but the development has gradually diverged from the original intention, and the conditions for smallholder operations have become more difficult. For example, the mandatory certification fee every year still puts burden on them regardless of government subsidy. Angus believes that whether there is certification is more a question of responsibility than a question of trust. Therefore, SEED uses farmers’ markets to build trust between the public and small farmers. In farmers’ markets, customers generally do not mind whether the products they buy are certified or not, because they believe in the farmers standing in front of them.

Hong Kong Organic Farmers’ Market

In 2000, the government provided various technical support to help conventional farmers switch to organic farming. Two to three years later, these in-conversion farmers had products for sale, but the output was unstable. Therefore, SEED, AFCD and the Federation of Vegetable Marketing Co-operative Societies (FVMCS) decided to sell products flexibly according to the farmers’ weekly harvest. They established the first organic farmers’ market— Tai Wo Farmers’ Market. Consumers can directly contact and communicate with farmers. This novel sales model was very popular.

At present, even under the pandemic, the sales of farmers’ markets have increased, because not only more Hong Kong people cook at home, but also consumers are more assured of eating local vegetables purchased at the farmers’ markets. With the increases of health awareness, social resources to promote entrepreneurship, and funds to establish social enterprises to help different disadvantaged groups in recent years, the SEED’s Agriculture 3.0 application supports the development of the co-purchase model, connects farmers and customers, establishes a network for cooperation and sales, and organizes data. Even though online co-purchase platforms and farmers’ markets inevitably form a competitive relationship to a certain extent, the emergence of various platforms can provide more choices for the public, and the local vegetable market can therefore flourish.

Hong Kong’s Agricultural Development

Angus pointed out that whether Hong Kong’s agriculture is gradually going downhill after the golden period cannot be briefly summarized. After 2000, incidents such as Korean farmers’ anti-World Trade Organization movement and land resumption in Hong Kong Choiyuen Village took place. Agriculture has become a topic of social movement. Coupled with industrial modernization, many new agricultural organizations and community farms have appeared in Hong Kong. Local agriculture is in a new phenomenon. Angus described the current structure like this, “There are more people, more diversity, reduced total production and number of large farms, and increased number of small farms.”

From the farming classes, he noticed the changes in farming culture and people who entered the industry. The trainees 20 years ago mainly wanted to become a full-time farmer. 10 years ago, more non-governmental organizations and social enterprises came to learn and wanted to understand the operation of farms through farming classes. There were also many retirees who wanted to try new directions and even rented land for practice. In recent years, he has discovered that the numbers of young people and school teachers have increased. Angus hopes to find an entry point under the new structure of scattered and small-scaled farming to help farmers increase production capacity.

Angus has been working in China’s agricultural development for more than 10 years. He led groups to inspect farms in the mainland and invited teachers from South China Agricultural University to give training and lectures to farmers. Therefore, he hopes to bring some technology back to Hong Kong, continue to pass on experience, cultivate talents and promote cooperation, thus contribute to the development of Hong Kong’s agriculture. Having persisted in agriculture for many years, he has these insights. “The process of farming can bring humans back to the ground and help them firmly face the challenge ahead. It is a buffer ground with the effect of peace of mind and stability,” he said. “Even if productivity decreases, the agricultural industry still has its place, because people need food to sustain their lives.”

Text: Ken Wong, Joanna Wong

(November 2020 Interview)

SEED Mr. Angus Lam