SCMP Monday, November 13, 2000

Organic farming plan takes root


Organic farms will be promoted in a new government drive after a survey found many people were willing to pay more for non-organic vegetables if they were better marketed.
The consumer survey, funded by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, estimated one in six people would buy organic food even if prices were 50 per cent higher.
The news coincides with a backlash among consumers against genetically modified foods. Officials are drawing up labelling laws for them.
The department will also set up a working group to develop a certification and labelling system for organic farm products. Certification will involve setting guidelines for producing the food, including a ban on using artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Seeds must not be genetically modified. Details are expected early next year, with a system in place in two years.
"We'll develop a wholesale mechanism," agriculture officer Stephen Lai Yue-hong said. "About a third of farmers in Hong Kong are willing to grow organic crops, but there is a lack of technical support. Prices will come down if there is more competition."
His department will provide technical support to farmers who want to switch to organic farming as an alternative to mainland crops. Information on organic farming will be posted on the Web and the Government will promote shops selling organic vegetables.
More than 90 per cent of the vegetable market is dominated by imports from China, with organic vegetables taking up a mere 0.1 per cent. But the survey conducted in June and July predicted that market share could rise to one or two per cent with improved marketing and public understanding of the health and environmental benefits.
It could rise to seven or eight per cent if there were improved quality assurances, more consumer education and better distribution networks.
In the survey, one-third of the 616 people polled said they had bought organic vegetables, mostly at supermarkets. More expatriates than Chinese claim to be aware of organic vegetables.
Hong Kong Organic Farming Association chairman Angus Lam Chi-kwong welcomed the Government's pledge of support at a time when the farming industry was in decline due to stiff competition from the mainland.
But Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, associate professor in biology at Baptist University, said it might take more than two years to ensure arable land was contamination-free.