Is it really organic? How Hong Kong’s lack of regulation on produce cast doubts
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on April 8, 2016.
Crouched between knee-high bushes on a small patch of land in rural Sheung Shui, two organic farmers slowly cut their way through lines of crops amid light rain showers.
The farmers, who work at Wild Roots Organic farm, are harvesting spinach, beetroot and Swiss chard – seasonal vegetables they grew themselves to be sold and delivered to families around the city.
Their customers are part of a growing community in Hong Kong looking to buy fresh, high- quality vegetables that have been organically farmed in the city.
But with the expansion of the industry have come many questions about how to best regulate the sector and ensure authenticity of the labelling of organic produce in Hong Kong.
The authenticity issue was highlighted last month when vegetables samples tested by the Consumer Council – some of which claimed to be organic – were found to contain pesticide residue and heavy metals. After testing 127 samples that included 75 “organic” vegetables, the council found pesticide residue and heavy metals in 28 and 12 samples, respectively.
Unlike other developed cities, Hong Kong currently has no legislation regulating the sale and labelling of organic products – creating a loophole for sellers and retailers to market conventionally grown produce as organic without fear of prosecution.
The result is that consumers can’t be certain the produce they are buying is genuinely organic.
“The system relies on the honesty of the farmers. There’s no legal standard for organic in Hong Kong,” said Fai Hui, founder of Wild Roots Organic.
To be considered organic, global expectations are farming operations cannot use prohibited substances such as synthetic pesticides and must protect natural resources as well as conserve the biodiversity of its surroundings.
As of February, there were 556 farms in Hong Kong listed as organic through the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department’s Voluntary Registration System. The farms are scattered across the New Territories – Tai Kong Po, Ng Ka Tsuen, Ping Che, Fanling, Sheung Shui, Tai Po and Pat Heung.
In 2000, the department also established a free voluntary Organic Farming Conversion Scheme that helps farmers switch from conventional to organic farming, and now offers a support and advisory service to existing and new organic farms. The number of participating farms in the two schemes has grown from 15 to about 273 since the programmes were introduced.
Professor Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, director of the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre at Baptist University, has been working to increase public awareness of organic farming practices and push the government to ultimately regulate the industry.
As the industry continues to grow, the city must inevitably form a legal definition of what it means to be organic and require all products that are labelled and marketed as organic to have appropriate certification, he said.
“Once we have the labelling regulation, we can regulate the retailer easier,” Wong said. “We need to have a better reporting system. In Hong Kong, it’s difficult to find data from the retailer.”
The centre runs a voluntary organic certification programme that follows global standards and is considered the main certification body for local organic farms. There are about 140 farms currently certified by the centre, representing almost 90 per cent of the total area for organic farm production in the city.
Wong said cases of fraud had increased in the past five years – even among certified sellers. The most common cases involve retailers and farmers mixing conventionally grown and organic vegetables together and selling them as certified organic products, he explained.
The centre withdrew certifications from four farms last year after three were found selling organic and conventionally grown vegetables together and one was found selling vegetables with pesticide levels above 5 per cent – the accepted Environmental Protection Agency tolerance level used by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Earlier this year, the centre also found vegetables from local organic farms containing levels of lead exceeding Australian standards for the first time.
With cases of fraud becoming more ubiquitous, the centre lacks the manpower to effectively regulate this rapidly growing industry.
At present, they only have seven full-time employees – six people overseeing certification and one surveillance officer who investigates supermarkets and wet markets – in addition to 12 part-time inspectors.
The centre conducts random checks on 25 per cent of the farms they certify – a figure higher than the 10 per cent practised in other developed cities – and investigates retailers suspected of fraudulent activity.
Retailers found explicitly using the centre’s certificate to sell vegetables that are not organic or contain high levels of pesticides can be prosecuted, but Wong said such blatant cases of fraud are rare.
“Most of them [don’t] put it so clearly. The certificate will be somewhere in the back, they’ll have vegetables in the front and say it’s organic,” Wong said. “What we need to do now is set up a surveillance system and make sure this type of fraudulent activity becomes minimal.”
According to a study by the centre, the proportion of stalls in local wet markets that offer vegetables with organic certification overtook those that only sold self-claimed organic produce for the first time this year since the centre’s record-keeping began in 2008.
After surveying 390 stalls, 9.7 per cent were found to be selling vegetables with organic certification, while 5.6 per cent sold vegetables that claimed to be organic but were uncertified. In 2015, the figures were 6.10 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively.
However, not everyone thinks produce labelled as organic should require certification.
Jessica Lau, development officer for the Sustainable Ecological Ethical Development Foundation, said that the responsibility should fall on consumers when it comes to checking the source of the produce. The foundation organises a weekly farmers’ market selling locally grown organic produce by vetted farmers at the Star Ferry Pier in Central.
“In Hong Kong, most farms are quite small so for some of them it may be quite a burden to pay for the certificate,” Lau said, pointing out that farms that are certified can also “cheat” the process and therefore are not necessarily more legitimate.
“I think it’s very important for the consumers to know the farmer … [that’s] the best way to prevent the consumers [from] being cheated.”
Fai, who established his organic farm in 2011 because he wanted to help preserve the environment, echoed Lau’s sentiments – explaining that he does not think the government is capable of regulating the industry because of its extensive requirements.
“Organic farming can’t be verified by a pass, fail test. There are too many classes [of chemicals] to test for,” Fai said, adding that the certification processes conducted by bodies like the HKORC themselves are inadequate at present.
“We don’t have qualified inspectors. Most of the certifiers are people who don’t have a background … in agriculture.”
But he believes the city needs to define what it means to be organic in a way that is “prosecutable” to deter cheaters of the system. Organic produce can cost about triple the price of conventionally grown produce, he said.
In 2011, the government commissioned a study gauging public perception over the regulation of organic food sale and production. It recommended that the government “step up efforts in consumer education to enrich consumers’ knowledge of organic food and administrative measures to facilitate certification of organic products”.
“The local organic food sector considered the legislative approach too cumbersome, resulting in negative impacts on producers, traders and consumers, ultimately hindering the development of the sector,” said a spokesman from the Food and Health Bureau. “The consultant considered that a legislative approach ... might not be a proportionate measure.”
Although Wong admitted that imposing regulation at this stage may impede the development of the industry, he said it is unrealistic for consumers to bear the burden of ensuring the authenticity of organic produce.
The city’s long-term goal should be to work towards required certification and enforcement of proper organic farming standards, he said.
“Especially in a situation like Hong Kong, residents or consumers will rarely go to the farm. Most of the people are so busy, so they go to the market. Certification can work as a middleman,” Wong said. “In the long run, we need regulation. Everyone selling organic produce needs to have certification.”