Photo Essay: PermaClub, The Seedling of an Urban Grassroots Movement
So recently, a friend of mine started a farm. On top of his full-time job. In Hong Kong.
Yes, he actually physically built his own farm with rows of freshly-planted vegetables and herbs, an integrated pond to recycle by-products of crop production and an outdoor bathtub to promote being au naturel with nature #nudistcolonyindisguise (actually I’m not really sure what the tub is for but it looked pretty cool).
But if you’ve ever been to Hong Kong, you would know that finding land, let alone farm land, is extremely difficult and extremely expensive; so much so that tens of thousands of people literally live in metal cages. (That’s a whole other story for another time..)
So why go through the enormous effort and learning curve of building a farm? Sacha patiently broke it down for me during a day-long tour he and his brother were gracious enough to provide my visiting friends and I. Below, I attempt to summarize the current state of play for the increasingly perilous global food industry, a dangerous reality that requires our attention and individual action.
THE GLOBAL FOOD PRODUCTION CONUNDRUM
The formula for healthy living seems pretty straightforward. My personal concoction includes:
+ eat healthy, clean food
150 min/week of moderate and vigorous exercise
+ some exercise here and there
+ laughter ’til your stomach hurts (moderate exercise, check)
+ some good lovin’ (vigorous exercise, check? ;)
+ 1 or 2 or 3 or 4… spa days per month
+ 8 full hours of dreaming (of Brad, Hugh, Leo, all of the above!)
= clean bill of health (yay!)
Ok, maybe it’s not that straightforward but at its core, we should at a minimum eat good healthy, clean food. After all, you are what you eat and garbage in leads to garbage out, right? (Well, it also depends on what your definition of garbage is… I guess everything that ends up in the potty could be considered garbage. But if you eat garbage food, the by-product would be even more garbage-y, I would think?)
Anyway, moving on.
Today’s global food production machine makes it far more complex and what you see is frequently not what you get. An egg is not an egg, is not an egg when you compare eggs produced on different farms utilizing different techniques (hormone, corn-fed, anti-biotic-fed). Today, eating healthy requires a very heavy due diligence process, well beyond the supermarket, into the industry of food production — an industry that very significantly affects the foods we eat, its origins and, ultimately, our health.
With 7.1 billion (and growing by the second) hungry mouths in the world, the demand for food has reached unparalleled levels. And in a market of perfect competition, the supply of food would simply be driven by the demand and priced accordingly. In theory, the power would be held by the consumers.
In reality however, this is a drastically different story.
Over the last century, global agriculture and food production have undergone a number of significant changes. These changes, driven by advanced technology and science, have allowed industrialized farming to dominate the global food supply. Subsequently, the control and power over soil, seeds and the supply chain has shifted away from the hands of the consumer and into the iron grip of large conglomerate food giants (cue “War of the Worlds” music here.) Today, over 80% of fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and fish are produced by just a handful of multinational agribusinesses; just four companies control at least three-quarters of international grain trade and just under twenty cover the majority of food and beverage sales. At the same time, more and more farmland across the globe is being snatched away from local inhabitants by affluent speculators set to profit on climbing food prices.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
Today, the handful of multi-million dollar, large-scale farms, which continue to increase in size, dictate the practices and production of our food supply. Influenced by the models set forth by Ford and McDonald’s, today’s food industry follows similar principles that drive the Pinky and the Brain’s quest for world domination:
Fordism: assembly line production in huge volumes using machinery and unskilled labor.
McDonaldization of Society: mass fast food production based on quantity of sales, not quality of food
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF THIS SYSTEM?
The current model of global food production effects everyone (from local farmworkers to affluent consumers) and everything (land, farms, factories, wages, health) and it all centers around the controlling decisions that the conglomerate companies have over the supply chain.
Aside from taking control out of the farmers and consumers hands, access to quality farm-fresh and fair-trade food is becoming increasingly difficult to source. Today, the global food chain is dominated by unnaturally produced vegetables and food products through genetic modification (test tube frankenveggies), livestock packed into filthy environments and force-fed antibiotics (amongst other things like growth hormones, modified diets of corn and soy), increasing use of chemicals and pesticides to address the unnaturally large sizes of animals and evolving strains of bacteria. And these are just a few of the perilous realities of global food production driven by the Goliath of machines that we have allowed to rise. Over the last half century, the economics of global food production and the subsequent industrialized agri-culture that has arisen have reaped alarming consequences.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?
How does that translate in our part of the food chain?
Fruits and vegetables are losing their nutrients: According to a study of 43 produce items by the USDA, fruits and vegetables stocked on our shelves today may contain significantly fewer nutrients (some up to 38 percent) than decades ago.
Chicken today contains almost 300% more fat: Unnatural diets and cramped spaces produce birds that share the same obesity problem as humans who eat them. Not only do produce contain more fat, but they also provide 30% less protein. Learn more here.
Milk contains hormones that may cause cancer: Today, cows are producing double the amount of milk per year with the use of a hormone. Studies have linked this hormone to a number of cancers, including those of the prostate, breast, and colon.
Your apple could be coated with as many as nine different pesticides: Produce prone to insects or bruising (including peaches, apples, celery, strawberries, spinach) can be coated and soaked in as many as nine different chemicals or pesticides for weeks before making it to the supermarket. This means that the chemicals can actually be absorbed by the fruit and simply washing the skin is no longer enough.
Food contamination and poisoning is on the rise: With poor farming practices due to the pressure to produce more food cheaply, livestock are spreading diseases, fruits and vegetables are more susceptible to contamination and more consumers are coming down with food-related illnesses.
THE GLOBAL FOOD MOVEMENT AND PERMACLUB IN HONG KONG
There is, however, a movement that is democratizing power and aligning natural farming with a direct relationship to the people. The global food movement is mobilizing to transform not just the way we eat but the way we understand our world — from soil to stomach. The movement takes many forms and seeks to redirect power to a market shaped by fairness and co-responsibility.
The global food movement represents the transformational unity of healthy farming and social ecology and at its core, challenges the failing framework that defines successful agriculture and the solution to hunger through the use of genetically-modified techniques of mass production and ill-treatment of land, animals and people.
While the movement has gone mainstream in many developed nations like the US and Australia, less developed countries, and in particular areas with limited agricultural space like Hong Kong, have struggled to gain momentum in the sustainable-food movement.
With over 7 million people on 1,104 km² of land, Hong Kong is the world’s second most densely-populated region/country (this explains why I can hear my neighbor snoring along with other undesirable noises) and the lack of arable land has led to the need to import than 97% of the country’s vegetables. Moreover, of the limited 775 acres of land that are devoted to agriculture, only 10% is organic.
Hong Kong’s PermaClub, the brainchild of a young and forward-looking Sacha Van Damme, seeks to change that starting with people’s mentality. The small farm, only spanning a few acres, sets out to define a new socially-based farming model to support the tenets of humanity and promote a self-sustaining world while minimizing waste. Using ecological design principles, PermaClub utilizes non-genetically modified seeds, naturally cultivated soil and non-chemical pesticides found in nature.
Situated in a hidden valley in Clear Water Bay (清水灣) and run by an eclectic and growing team of volunteers across all ages and walks of life, PermaClub does not purport to solve the country’s growing wealth disparity and the subsequent lack of quality food for the region’s poor. The non-profit farm’s main missions are to improve and promote clean air, clean food and a healthy sustainable lifestyle through three guiding principles: care for people, care for the earth and share surplus.
Sacha’s overarching mission is to plant the seedling for fundamental change and be the catalyst for other farmers/companies to cultivate sustainable practices that will ultimately redefine the way we live.
During our one-day stay at PermaClub, we experienced what fresh vegetables and herbs should really taste like, learned about sustainable farming and the simple roles we can play (like choosing to buy organic and supporting local farmer’s markets), and saw the true magic behind mother nature in all of it’s lush and unadulterated glory. The day didn’t inspire me to buy my own plot to cultivate but I could certainly buy into supporting this movement and being a friend of the (sustainable) farmer.
Interested in learning more/helping? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a visit or get involved in volunteer work! #freeworkout