Posts Tagged ‘Cartagena Protocol’

An International Perspective on Buying Produce

Thursday, June 1st, 2006
(originally published on

Being susceptible to the appeal of adventure eating, I’ve embraced the consumption of oddities of brows both high and low in places across the globe. I’ve had foie gras in some of New York’s finest restaurants, calf fries in Fort Worth, and street food in Hanoi, and never has my cast-iron stomach failed me. So as I shivered through gut-wrenching pain under a heavy blanket in a sweltering apartment in Hong Kong, my sense of betrayal was plaintive and vast. Even worse, I suffered at my own hands: I knew there was something amiss with the Chinese scallions I sliced into my tuna salad, but my better instincts abandoned me. Fortunately, like most sufferers of food poisoning, I was back in the saddle in a day or two, but I did have some lingering questions: would I have gotten sick if I’d spent another HKD $10 (about USD $1.30) for Japanese or Australian scallions? How does one go about trying to buy healthy and sustainably-produced fruits and vegetables in an unfamiliar landscape?

The Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong has negligible agriculture, and it imports the vast majority of its food supply. Produce in Hong Kong supermarkets has clear labels of origin, and many people have very particular ideas about what is safe to consume. After Greenpeace raised the alarm in April about off-the-charts levels of pesticides found in Chinese produce in popular supermarket chains, many swore off these cheap and widely available imports. Rumors about Chinese imports on ex-pat forums, likely apocryphal, tell of vegetables and fish contaminated with human waste and other vile substances. US imports are suspect for some, as a large percentage of them may contain GMOs (Hong Kong residents, like those of many Western countries outside the US, are suspicious of genetically modified food, and the government is in the process of implementing The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.)

The other primary sources of produce for consumers are the so-called “wet markets.” These open-air markets operate in neighborhoods all over Hong Kong, selling fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs, seafood, and flowers, mostly from China. My first instinct upon arrival was to head straight for the wet markets, as I am a regular at my Brooklyn farmer’s market and I’m a big fan of locally-grown, but after my food poisoning experience and learning about pesticide contamination, I’ve steered clear.

Organic produce is popular with locals and expats alike, though standards can be uneven with so much international variety. In fact, “organic” is one of the more recently popular Engrish superlatives to appear on shops and flyers purveying items like books or clothing, along with “yoga” (my personal favorite is the “C.E.O. Flow Organic Bookshop.”) However, if you seek it out, it’s fairly easy to find organic produce. Several delivery services will bring organics to your door from a variety of different origins, and if you are willing to put in a day, you can even pick your own, although unless you live on Lamma, one of the outlying islands, you’ll need to take two ferry trips and a short walk to do so.

In recent years, the Hong Kong government has encouraged organic farming across the SAR, and the number of farms participating in their organic program has increased to over sixty farms. Organic produce is a niche for which local growers can charge a premium, and can be competitive with produce grown more cheaply in the mainland. However, the 2-3 metric tons of food produced by these farms each day can feed only a tiny portion of the SAR’s nearly 7 million residents.

As consumers world-wide become more aware of how their families and their environment can be affected by unsustainable or toxic food production methods, they are putting pressure on their governments to legislate on their behalves, which in turn puts pressure on countries that produce large quantities of the global food supply to improve their methods. Hong Kong has begun to implement stricter monitoring procedures to control pesticides in the food supply from China, and pressures continue to mount on China and the US from countries around the world to curb the use of pesticides and GMOs and to improve food safety practices.

Did that scallion make me sick? I still think so, although even if it was unrelated, my illness had the upside of making me look closely at where my food comes from , which is always a good thing to know.