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Getting food on the table without ruining the planet

Getting food on the table without ruining the planet thumbnail

As I slumbered gently on the sofa yesterday, slow-burning the oh-so-many calories that somehow found their way to my overstretched tummy, I realised there could be no better time to think about food.

As a westerner, this weekend was the biggest blowout of the year – though for most Hong Kong Chinese, the greatest calorie challenge comes at Chinese New Year. The average Brit consumes almost 3,300 calories over Christmas lunch – and perhaps 7000 calories in the day, with the steady ingestion of mulled wine and mince pies.

That is just behind the world’s Christmas lunch calorie leader – the United States – but is still an alarmingly huge mountain of calories. Note, the average man burns 2,500 calories a day, and a woman 2000, so to burn off the excess from just that one blow-out will take an hour’s walking every day in January – or an extra half hour’s jog every day, if you are into that kind of exertion.

At this stage in the recovery process, laying horizontal seemed yesterday to be the best option. Resting the Kindle on my stomach, two books seemed perfectly suited to the mellow but guilty mood of the moment – Tim Spector’s “The Diet Myth”, and Rob Knight’s “Follow Your Gut” – all about why diets don’t work, and about those busy little microbes that were toiling away at that very moment helping my body deal with the extraordinary excess of the past two days.

Did you know that our “microbiome” – the mainly-beneficial microbes that populate our bodies in particular in our gut – weighs more than 3 lbs – that is around 1.4 kg, the same weight as our brain. Did you know that compared with the 10 trillion human cells that make up each of our bodies, each of us provide home for 100 trillion microbes, which on average reproduce every 30 minutes.

By my count, that is a heck of a lot of bacteria. But without them, it seems we would be in a big mess – and that imbalances (often linked with using antibiotics every time we catch a cold) can give us problems ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to depression, and of course to diabetes and to obesity.

As concentration lapsed, I inevitably drifted into thoughts about obesity – and how this has soared as poverty continues to plague the unhappy part of the planet. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2014 more than 1.9 billion adults worldwide were overweight, and 600 million were obese – compared with 1 billion struggling below the poverty line and going to bed every day hungry. Alarmingly, a further 43 million kids under 5 years old are obese. And Hong Kong is up there among the fattest. Our Centre for Health Protection says 860,000 Hong Kong adults are obese – about 21 per cent of all adults. That is not as bad as the UK, where over 30 per cent are obese, but not good, and an important source of illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes.

Hong Kong has a shocking 568,000 people diagnosed with diabetes at present, making it one of the commonest killers in the city, and one of the heavier burdens on our health budget.

Thoughts then drifted to the bigger food issues that we are wrestling with in the 21-member Asia Pacific Cooperation Group (APEC) – food safety, food security, and food waste in particular.

The Peruvian government, chairing APEC in 2016, is giving top priority to food trade and food security. In these discussions, our own government has appeared supine and indifferent for several years – perhaps not surprising since we have no big farm sector, and no apparent food shortages.

Surely this is terribly myopic? Hong Kong has to be among the world’s most food insecure economies, relying on imports for over 90 per cent of our food. If international supplies of food were in any way disrupted (for example, by a major pandemic), then we would have food shortages of epic proportions very quickly.

And despite our massive obesity problems, and widespread overindulgence during festive seasons like this, food security really cannot be taken for granted. Look at some of the numbers that make Malthusians like me lose sleep at night: by 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.1 billion – up 34 per cent from today; The lucky half of that population is expected to be much more affluent, consuming more “resource-wasteful” foods like steak, putting strong upward pressure on demand for cereals; compared to today, where 49% of the region’s population lives in cities, by 2050 we expect 50% of the population to be urban – and as a result unable to grow their own food.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that cereal production that at present stands at 2.1 billion tonnes a year will have to rise to 3 billion tonnes, while meat production will have to more than double from 200 million tonnes a year to 470 million tonnes.

All of which means that food production must be lifted by 70 to 100 per cent. Given that new farm land is in short supply, this means that just 10 per cent of this new demand can be met by turning new land over to farm land. Some 20 per cent will have to come from improved technologies to use existing cropland more efficiently (note that China, which produces half of the world’s fruit and vegetables, loses half of these fruit and vegetables on the way to market as they rot – that is a quarter of the world’s fruit and vegetables lost every year without us even knowing about it).

A whopping 70 per cent of new food supply must come from new technologies and policy innovation.

So as I laid there with bloated stomach, I realised that my overindulgence cannot in any way be taken for granted in the longer term. You don’t have to be a Malthusian to recognise that food insecurity is a problem we all need to take seriously – to feed those that are still starving, to satisfy the indulgences of the already affluent, and to do so without polluting our planet into extinction. Food for thought.

David Dodwell is executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trading Policy Group


34 Comments on "Getting food on the table without ruining the planet"

  1. JuanP on Mon, 28th Dec 2015 1:47 pm 

    I’d make plans to get out of any place that imported more than 90% of its food ASAP. Places like Hong Kong have absolutely no future. All large cities in the world will experience brutal disruptions to their supply chains sooner or later, leading to chaos, crime, and riots.

  2. onlooker on Mon, 28th Dec 2015 2:29 pm 

    Their is no new technology or innovation awaiting to rescue the 7 billion and growing population. Quite the contrary, food supplies are set to dwindle as water aquifers are drained and as Fossil fuel derived fertilizers and pesticides become less plentiful. The soils of many areas are dead from overuse and chemicals. Soil erosion continues as does desertification. Plant yields are reaching natural limits. Basically, our eating has been done unsustainably as other practices as well. So we will not be able to continue to produce food at this pace. Less food is the most direct causative factor for die-off. I did not even mention Climate Change.

  3. JuanP on Mon, 28th Dec 2015 6:06 pm 

    Winter Polytunnel article,

  4. ghung on Mon, 28th Dec 2015 6:31 pm 

    Thanks, Juan. A polytunnel/hightunnel is a great advantage for food production on the homestead. I admit to having been lazy over the last month or so; giving myself a break, but will be back at it after new years. Still, we have cabbages ready to pick and are eating those once or twice a week. We also have herbs and onions wintering over. This spring I plan to get a 1-2 month head start on the season.

    One of the best advantages is water/moisture control. We’ve had almost 80 inches of rain this year (more as I type) but the hightunnel is a 72’x30′ rain/mud free garden, year ’round.

  5. makati1 on Mon, 28th Dec 2015 6:42 pm 

    Well covered guys. Using past stats to project the future is a fools errand. Starvation will spread, not contract, and hit countries that now believe themselves to be self-sufficient. Wait and see.

  6. GregT on Mon, 28th Dec 2015 9:17 pm 

    “A polytunnel/hightunnel is a great advantage for food production on the homestead.”

    Sorry for my ignorance, but what is the difference between a polytunnel and a high tunnel? And also, what advantages do either have over greenhouses?

    Thanks Guys.

  7. peakyeast on Mon, 28th Dec 2015 9:23 pm 

    I wonder how those tunnels would last through the winter here. We have about 3-4 storms every year. I imagine they would be torn to shreds?

  8. ghung on Mon, 28th Dec 2015 9:47 pm 

    peakyeastasks; “I wonder how those tunnels would last through the winter here.”

    People have them in South Dakota and Minnesota. The Gothic style frames are stronger and cost about the same as hoops. Mine is designed to shed snow, has withstood a 45 MPH gust, and is rated to 70 MPH. Plenty of stuff about them online.

  9. makati1 on Mon, 28th Dec 2015 10:18 pm 

    peaky, I wonder how they hold up to hail and ice? That seems more common in PA, and the states in that area, than heavy snow loads.

    On our farm here in the Ps, they might have to survive 100+ mph typhoons several times a year. Not practical. But then, not needed either with a 365 day growing season.

  10. GregT on Mon, 28th Dec 2015 10:42 pm 

    Seeing as nobody else is interested in helping me out here. I’ll take a stab at it. No difference other than cost?

    I already have two 10 x 12 greenhouses, and plan on adding a couple more this summer after I clear some land. My biggest concern would be the longevity of the poly. Is there a specific
    poly manufactured for this purpose? And how many years should it be expected to last?

  11. Davy on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 4:13 am 

    I am planning a poly tunnel when I finish my goat/cattle grazing system which is almost finished. I was able to secure half my funding on the grazing system but unable to get any help on the polytunnel. I am planning a 12 x 40 to compliment my 15,000 sq/ft garden/orchard/vine.

    I keep a detailed spreadsheet on my farming efforts both with my time effort and monetary effort. Gardens are expensive but essential. I feel they are a physical wealth investment. They are also a spiritual investment in a connection to nature and your our food supply.

    I am planning the pollytunnel because I need the extended season they offer and the pest and weather protection. I applied for money because my prep effort is maxed. I feel it is an essential addition to my effort so it is next on the list.

  12. markisha on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 5:09 am 

    vegetable and fruits are not food, first of all. Try to it only that and you will be to weak to move . Food staples are meat, animal and vegetable fat, corn , soy, milk and so on

  13. JuanP on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 6:53 am 

    Greg, Ghung is our board’s Polytunnel specialist. I have no practical experience with them, but I know that they help protect seedlings and plants from excessive wind, cold, and rain. These characteristics will make growing food in them easier, extend your growing season, and will allow you to be outdoors working on your plants on bad weather days. They are also great for setting up hydroponic and aquaponic systems. Water tanks inside the tunnel help regulate temperature, reducing extremes. Combined with a rainwater collection system, cistern, and drip irrigation they make a mean growing environment.

    Some people put their compost piles inside the tunnel and this helps warm up both the compost and the tunnel. Others grow chickens inside for the same reasons, chickens irradiate heat, too, and also benefit from the warmer environment. They can also be heated using oil lamp or small stoves.

    The Poly is treated to resist UV radiation and lasts around 5-10 years, depending on luck and circumstances. I can’t compare them to a greenhouse, maybe Ghung can help you with that.

    At the urban farming coop I volunteer in, we have old second hand poly left overs and scraps donnated by some farmers all over the nursery like a roof, and if it weren’t for them we would have completely lost all our seedlings in December. Everything that was not protected died. We almost lost the Winter growing season, which is the most important of the year in South Florida.

    I think Polytunnels and greenhouses are a great investment for both cold and warm weather preppers and food growers, but those living in colder places will benefit most from them. Check the links above, there are more links on the subject at the bottom of the article I linked above.

  14. GregT on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 9:33 am 

    Thanks Juan,

    I did some reading last night, and as far as I can tell, the biggest differences between a greenhouse and a “tunnel” are size, and cost per square foot. Feel free to correct me if I have
    missed anything.

  15. ghung on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 9:48 am 

    GregT asked; “Sorry for my ignorance, but what is the difference between a polytunnel and a high tunnel?”

    No real difference except in height. Hightunnels are tall enough to get a small tractor into for tilling, etc. (my 35 hp tractor is a perfect size). Once my beds are pre-prepped I use a solar-powered electric tiller. Many commercial operations mono-crop their hightunnels using small tractors. Also, the height allows for growing vertically a bit better.

    The difference in poly/hightunnels and greenhouses is cost, and that polytunnels and hightunnels are generally passive (no heaters and temperature control other than rolling up/down the sides and ends; I added some PV-direct DC fans to my gables). In general, greenhouses are year ’round while hightunnels are considered “season extenders”, but they have a wide variety of uses depending on crops and location.

    The primary advantages to hightunnels (and polytunnels) is protection from moisture, heavy rain, hail, frost, wind and some temperature control. Helps warm the soil faster in spring as well. Crop loss due to freak weather is greatly reduced. In our wet climate (heavy dew almost every morning during growing seasons), mildew, blight, etc. can be reduced/eliminated since the foliage doesn’t get wet.

    I added netting to my sides and ends to keep the birds out. It also keeps the big butterflies out. Great butterfly traps, hightunnels. Sometimes I’ll open the ends to let swallows in to eat the bugs, but they do crap on the crops.

    As with greenhouses, pollination can be an issue (honey bees don’t seem to like them but bumble bees find their way in). I hand-pollinate tomatoes, cukes, etc. (not hard to do) to ensure better pollination. Greens, cabbages, onions, root crops, aren’t a problem. Beans thrive, especially grown vertically. We had amazing filet bean production late summer/fall; about 5 pounds per row-foot. I use paper mulch, drip irrigation on timers and ‘fertigation’ (liquid fertilizer injection; mainly fish emulsion). Bottom line is you have much more control over everything vs outdoor growing. I use row covers for insect control on some crops, harder to do outdoors where the covers blow off.

    Nothing worse than losing an expensive, labor/time intensive crop to a single storm or freak frost, especially if your lives are depending on those crops. Poly/hightunnels greatly reduce those threats. I plan to stockpile extra plastic for the future. Goes to prepping. Currently about $500 to recover our tunnel every 5-6 years.

    Those in the US can see my link, above, for USDA grants. With me (I?) doing the labor/building, our grant paid about 110% of our costs; surplus went to enhancements. I get the feeling our government is trying to diversify and distribute (localise) food production more. Maybe they know something the general public is unaware of, eh?

  16. GregT on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 10:00 am 

    Thank-you Ghung!

    You wouldn’t happen to have any pictures? I’m sure that many here would be interested to see them. I know I would.

  17. JuanP on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 10:13 am 

    Greg, What Ghung said! I was mostly quoting him from memory.

  18. ghung on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 10:32 am 

    Greg; I only have a couple of under-construction photos. Seems I was too busy building and growing to play photographer, but my wife took a bunch (I’ll ask her tonight). I did ALL of the construction myself, so I was busier than a one-armed paper hanger 😉

    Maybe I’ll add a post to the forums in the future.

    Here’s a couple of photos, including the little PV system I built for power at the site.–37057.jpg

  19. peakyeast on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 11:08 am 

    @Ghung: Thanks for the info and link.

    I have tried to convince my wife – but she thinks they are ugly !!

    So now I am speculating wether I should just put one or two up and take the beating up I will get for doing it – or prepare myself for long term haul in quite manipulation and convincing.

  20. ghung on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 11:45 am 

    Yeah, peaky, I’ve had to deal with that sort of thing. My older sister complains about noisy roosters, ugly solar panels, and wanted to know if I could have chosen a prettier color for my hightunnel. Spoils her view. I stand fast on the “it’s my property, it’s a farm, and I’ll do what I want with it”. Sometimes I remind them that there’s no ordinance preventing me from building a dirt bike track or a shooting range (the old don’t piss me off ploy).

    Of course, it’s a bit different with a spouse. Mine is great, as long as I keep the house warm and the lights on.

    Wasn’t my fault Sis built her house where she can see everything (and mind everybody else’s business). Her retirement plan is two ex-husbands. Mine is growing stuff.

  21. aspera on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 4:08 pm 

    Ghung: Is the solar-electric tiller a DIY design? Any plans to share?

    (I’ve got the panels and batteries set up, but just lighting some lights now. Trying to decide between 12-volt garden-related things and an inverter for the small freezer.)

  22. ghung on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 5:41 pm 

    @aspera; It’s just a $149 Greenworks 8-Amp 10-in Corded Electric Cultivator from Lowes running off of a cheap 1500 watt inverter. Works much better than I expected, pretty much like a Mantis. I put a couple of AC outlets from the little solar system into the hightunnel and use a heavy-duty extension cord. Currently using two cycle-27 DC (deep cycle) batteries for the solar. Gives me about an hour’s run time with the tiller, more on a good sunny day; plenty for my needs. Great for tilling in compost, tilling weeds, etc.. I also use it to till in rock dust and sand to improve tilth.

  23. ghung on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 5:44 pm 

    Oh,, and remember, 8 amps AC at 120 volts is over 80 amps at 12 VDC coming from the batteries. Size your battery=>inverter wires accordingly.

  24. peakyeast on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 5:55 pm 

    Using 12V for any significant lenght of wiring is counter productive.

    Even with fairly thick cables like 4mm2 you will still get a significant voltage drop and use the drop to heat up wiring.

  25. makati1 on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 6:49 pm 

    peakyeast, you bring up a good fact. I was amazed that they use a much smaller gauge of copper wire here in the Ps for their standard 220V wiring. Then I realized that it was to prevent electric loss, which adds up.

    We will have a similar problem with our new electric service at the farm as it has to travel about 1/2 mile from the meter to the panel.(The meter is near the road and the farm is 1/2 mile off of the road.) That line will be aluminum but there will still be a loss. Too bad silver is not cheap. It is a better conductor and would have less loss. lol.

  26. peakyeast on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 7:12 pm 

    Aluminium is worse than copper – but the price difference makes up for more. At 220VAC and 750m I think you should ask for at about 25mm2 of alu cable.

    Btw I have 900m of armoured sea-water submersible cable available (20kV and 300A) just if you need it – special price for you my friend 😉

    Retail price is about 120.000$ – I will sell it for 30.000$ excl. shipping.

    A friend of mine had a project that went belly up and since he owed me a lot of money i got part of the cable.

  27. makati1 on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 7:41 pm 

    peaky, I am too far away to take you up on your offer, but thanks.

    We have a 60A/220V service. More than enough for our few uses. Water is gravity fed from the roof. Cooking will be bottled gas (or charcoal/wood if outside). Water heating will be a solar unit on the roof. We hope to have a small solar electric panel system on the roof, soon after we move in, to back up the commercial service. Both will only provide a slower slide back into wood and charcoal. Voluntary down grading is easier than suddenly being forced to.

  28. ghung on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 7:42 pm 

    Aluminum is fine for higher voltage AC but never for high amp DC. I used 4/0 copper welding cable for my primary cables in the house (from battery to main DC panel, and on to the inverters (2/0).

    Mak said; “I was amazed that they use a much smaller gauge of copper wire here in the Ps for their standard 220V wiring. Then I realized that it was to prevent electric loss, which adds up.

    Having a hard time making sense of that. The smaller the wire, the higher the loss. Resistance drops as cable size increases. 220V house wiring doesn’t need a big wire except for larger loads.

    Anyway, the distribution wiring is likely a much higher voltage than 220V; in the KV range, and stepped down to 220 at the load (house, etc.). Of course, in the PI, you may have a much longer drop from the nearest step-down transformer.

  29. peakyeast on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 8:50 pm 

    I think what makati means is that the wire for 220VAC can be a smaller diameter than for 110VAC.

    And yes Ghung normal distribution voltage is usually 10KV and local transformers for 400VAC. Of course, it can be much higher for longer distances.

  30. Practicalmaina on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 9:07 pm 

    Lean 2 greenhouse, don’t have one, but soon. Free heat for the home combined with an insulated north wall that is both massive thermal mass but also a heat sourse. When will man master using solar for making tempered glass?

  31. makati1 on Tue, 29th Dec 2015 9:30 pm 

    ghung, maybe it is because copper is so expensive and their electric use is minimal? Of course, aluminum should never be used inside any building as the connections have a tendency to loosen over time and cause fires and shorts. Or so I have been told by electricians.

    The voltage is stepped down at the transformer (at the road power line) leading into the meter, not at the house panel. That is also true in the US. Or was the last time I built and wired a house in the Us 15 years ago.

  32. Apneaman on Wed, 30th Dec 2015 7:26 pm 

    Extinction is forever
    Robert J. Burrowes

    30th December 2015

    Humanity is continuing to drive species into extinction at a terrifying rate, writes Robert J. Burrowes – not just nameless beetles and midges, but mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and trees. The biggest causes are habitat destruction, pollution and hunting … and unless we stop soon, we too will be among the victims of our ecocidal attack on Earth.

  33. JuanP on Thu, 31st Dec 2015 7:31 am 

    Monsanto vs. the Monarch butterflies,

    My wife and I are directly involved in this fight. We manage two official Monarch Waystations where we grow thousands of Milkweeds and pollen providing and other plants for them and six other butterfly species. Every day we collect eggs and caterpillars and set many butterflies free. We also provide a safe environment for Hummingbirds at one of the gardens, too. We grow thousands of butterflies every year and you could do it, too.

    I want to recommend to our board members doing this as a new year’s resolution. The Monarch population has collapsed in the last three years and their legendary migrations are in danger. You can visit and watch Rich Lund’s Monarch and Milkweeds video series on YouTube to get started.

    Happy New Year!

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