Environmentalists have predicted dire conditions by 2050, with the agriculture industry being one of the main contributors. Agriculture today relies on unsustainable food production and distribution systems, which spew greenhouse gases, as well as deplete natural resources like land and water.
Here in Hong Kong, social enterprise Rooftop Republic is taking on the problem in hopes to bring farming closer to home. Co-founder Pol Fàbrega tells Kate Springer why developing a more sustainable and more accessible agriculture model is so important, and what the city could look like 30 years from now.
A local finalist in the Chival Regal “The Venture” 2016 competition, Rooftop Republic is a social enterprise that helps transform urban spaces into farms or gardens, as well as organizes educational events to promote organic farming and sustainable living. Co-founder Fàbrega has extensive experience in the environmental and nonprofit sectors — he worked to combat human trafficking at an NGO in Cambodia, investigated human rights as as senior researcher at University of Hong Kong, and worked at education initiative Teach For All in Hong Kong, before moving on to launch Rooftop Republic.
1. The current agriculture model is a serious problem
There’s nothing that we do as human being that affects the planet more than agriculture. If anyone is concerned about the environment then agriculture should be the number one priority. Agriculture uses up to 45 percent of the total land on the planet to raise animals or to farm vegetables. It uses up to 70 percent of our fresh water and it contributes up to 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that we produce on a yearly basis.
In Hong Kong, we are importing 90 percent of the food that we consume. If anything happens to the food system, then we are out of food in two days. Hong Kong used to provide over 60 percent of its food needs back in the 60s and 70s, so I feel Hong Kong is an incredible place to be doing this given the conditions of the city. Hopefully the city will be an example for other places across Asia as well.
2. Sustainable local farming is on the rise
In the New Territories, Hong Kong has 450 organic farms, whereas a few years before it was almost nonexistent. There has been a huge increase in organic farming in the rural areas of Hong Kong but we felt that city dwellers are still disconnected from that. We wanted to bring this moment into the middle of the city for those who work here, live here, and may not have access to plots of land in the New Territories.
Since we import mostly from mainland China, there are obviously some food safety concerns. I think people are more aware of those things. so that’s why we are seeing such momentum in everything that’s related to urban farming, shops selling organic produce and farmer’s markets.
3. But farming needs to move downtown
Right now in the city we are miles away and are incredibly removed from food production. We go to the supermarket and there are strawberries, lettuce and tomatoes all year round. We live in this fallacy of abundance where everything is available so we are not connected anymore with the seasons, and what things grow in which climates or how a tomato plant looks like. Basic things like this.
I would like urban dwellers to be more connected to their food sources — to know what it takes to grow the food, which farm is growing it, what it takes to transport it to your plate. And I’m convinced that if we increase this awareness people will waste less food, be more conscious about what they are eating or buying.
4. Urban farming is one part of the solution
There is a trend of increasing urbanization across the world, reported by the UN, which estimates that 70 percent of the world population will be living in cities by 2050. Hong Kong is a great place for urban farming because we are one of the most densely populated cities in the world. We have already been urbanized densely and many more cities will look like Hong Kong in the future. We are in a privileged position to experiment and develop the way forward and how we live in cities.
Urban farming is a global movement and it has been happening across the world. It takes different forms and serves different purposes. There are companies for example in New York operating large farms on rooftops and greenhouses on top of supermarkets, in order to revolutionize the food supply change and cut out all the middle steps between a farm in California that produces your tomatoes until it gets to your table 2,000 miles later.
5. And we happen to have lots of empty rooftops
People say there is no space in Hong Kong. It’s super dense of course, but there is space. If you look at the city from above there is plenty of space and, in fact, it’s shocking how the price of a square foot is incredibly high in Hong Kong, and yet you have all these square feet of space on rooftops that are completely underutilized and have no value.
No one is renting rooftops or making a living with them and yet every building has one. There are 40,000 buildings in Hong Kong and this includes the commercial, industrial and residential buildings. It’s safe to say that the majority are underutilized. Every time I go on a rooftop there’s nothing happening, just an AC unit and nothing else.
I’m convinced that living in a space surrounded by green improves your quality of life — the link is as direct as that. It is actually well researched by scientists, and findings show that it’s beneficial to see greenery around you. From an urban planning perspective, urban farming uses spaces that aren’t being otherwise vacant and we are enhancing the landscape of the city at the same time.
It’s impossible to continue to live like this in the future because we have an increasing population. By 2050 we will have 9 billion people and 70 percent of them will live in cities. There’s an issue of global warming with more droughts, floods, unstable temperatures and harder conditions for growing.
Meanwhile we will will have to triple what we produce to feed everyone. So we think we need a wider conversation with all the stakeholders involved, society and everyone to rethink and re-imagine how to grow our food in a more sustainable way.
Urban farming is one way we can contribute to these solutions. It won’t solve the problem alone but it’s one way of making our food sources much closer to their destination, which is city dwellers and consumers. Bringing food and integrating it into the urban fabric in Hong Kong will be a great example — we are already so densely populated that if it can work in Hong Kong then it can work anywhere.
I hope in the future urban dwellers will be more connected with their food sources. I think urban farming will lead to people being aware of other related issues, like wasting less food, being more conscious about choices we make, the way we grow food and the way be buy food.