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The Best Of Hong Kong
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By Faye Bradley | February 21st, 2022

We catch up with sustainability pioneer Peggy Chan, founder of Grassroots Initiative Consultancy and Executive Director at Zero Foodprint Asia.

Can you tell us about your project Zero Foodprint Asia?

Zero Foodprint Asia is a non-profit that Grassroots Initiatives licensed to Hong Kong beginning mid-2021, so far covering the Chinese speaking region in Asia. I first got involved with ZFP Headquarters in California through a chance encounter at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in 2018 where we were both speaking on a panel together, and from then on Joel and I have been deep diving into this rabbit hole of everything LCA, understanding impact metrics of food, and working towards a regenerative food system. What ZFPA does is rally up the hospo industry to help fund the transition of farmers currently growing food within the industrial agriculture systems, to one that’s regenerative. By rallying up, it means that we host a crowdfunding program that gathers funds from member food businesses such as restaurants, cafes, bars and food retailers. Members then pledge 1% of every restaurant purchase to ZFPA to fund regenerative farming practices that improve soil health, increase crop nutrition and draw down carbon from the atmosphere which helps combat global warming.

Grassroots Initiatives, the consultancy, helps foodservice businesses develop immediate internal sustainable solutions. Zero Foodprint Asia tackles the broader systemic issues derived from our industrial food system, one that we are heavily reliant on for our food sources in Hong Kong. Because this work is SO new, where SO much of the data and research that’s needed is missing, we ally with local and regional soil scientists, academics, farmers, policymakers, industry movers and shakers to make this transition happen. In tertiary economies across Asia similar to cities like HK, those that are dependent on the sales of services and commodities, there is never a lack of financial transactions that occur between companies and individuals. That is why we should leverage the commercial models in the food and hospo industry, to get money directly to those who feed us. 

Photo: Adele Wong

How do you work with restauranteurs, chefs and farmers to create a transparent food system? 

For restaurants and chefs, think of ourselves as capital vehicles. So the simple way of helping create this transparent food system is to use our voices, and our platforms to mobilize funding going to the right organizations that are helping to pave the way for a renewable food system. And there are tons of organizations doing legit work already (mainly based in the West: http://regenerationinternational.org/, http://regenorganic.org/, http://www.4p1000.org/,http://www.soilheroes.com/, http://www.renature.co/). You see, we can’t demand for ‘transparent’ or ‘regenerative’ when the market doesn’t allow for the more ‘sustainable’ option to be easily affordable, available nor accessible for all.

To wait for the market to be ready and the policies to ripen would take forever. Just look at ‘certified organic’ – the idea’s been around for over six decades but why is it that only less than 2% of global farmlands are certified organic? Yet the gravity of food insecurity, water and air pollution, ocean acidification, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, deforestation, social injustice and the climate crisis exacerbated by the industrial food system is too heavy a price to pay for us to wait around for when the market and policies are ready to change. That’s why ZFPA takes a proactive approach to generating momentum, speeding up knowledge and education and creating that change. Every time a diner goes to purchase a meal at a restaurant, 1% goes into funding the food system we want for our kids and our future generations. In aggregate, that becomes a lot. Currently, nature-based climate solutions such as land based conservation efforts and regenerative ag are vastly underfunded, and contributions by the private sectors are nominal. So ZFPA closes that gap and makes climate action participation easy, and possible. Since 2020, ZFP HQ has raised just over USD825,000 that went to 43 different farming projects. 

Photo: Adele Wong

Each project that we fund is monitored and supported by TAPs (technical assistance provider) for a period of no less than 12 months to ensure that farmers are given the assistance and guidance to make that transition successful. Soil is tested periodically over time to monitor its increase in soil organic carbon (in general, the higher the SOC rate, the more biodiverse the soil is, more healthier the crops are, and higher the rate for carbon sequestration). So since the program mission is to create a renewable system that evaluates outcomes and outputs rather than process , farmers are rewarded for helping turn soil into healthier carbon-sinks vs, rewarded for industrially growing food to meet the yield that the markets demand, which is the problem with the current industrial ag model. (And this is also not to say that yield is any less than industrial farming, in fact, many studies have shown that productivity is en par if not more than industrial methods after approx. 2 years of implementation, depending on the existing health of the soil that the farmer is working on.)

The more we can bring back this knowledge and assistance to farmers, the more that farmers will see a way out of the control that the current food system is stifling them with.

Photo: Diner – from a screencap via the ZFPA launch video by Capsule 48

How can diners support the initiative?

You can dine at participating ZFPA restaurants. You can share with your friends and family members about the movement, and convince more people to frequent those restaurants. You can even donate directly to the ZFPA restore fund. Moreover, encourage your favourite cafe, restaurant or even food retailer to join the 1% pledge. There is no more applicable example than this when we say The More the Merrier! 

Photo: ZFPA

Has the sustainability movement evolved in Hong Kong?

I wouldn’t say that it has evolved enough to create better systems, actual tangible impact, or influence policy changes just yet. What it has done is open up doors for unabated greenwashing. We understand everyone is latching onto everything they can do in the vast realm of things. But claiming that products are ‘sustainable’ without true accountability just so that they can create that feel-good factor for their consumers in choosing their ‘less bad’ option, purchasing carbon offsets so companies can continue to operate business as usual, and making empty net-zero and carbon neutrality claims, is the last thing we should be doing. On the other hand, I’m encouraged by the youth that are speaking out about climate change and doing grassroots work in making this all of our responsibilities.

Photo: Farmer Joey – from a screencap via the ZFPA launch video by Capsule 48

What’s a common misconception about climate change?

(1) That the biggest emitting sector is fossil fuel and therefore as long as we put funding into carbon capture tech and turn to renewable energy as the sources of our solutions, we can solve climate change.

Wrong. True that the energy sector is the highest emitting estimated at 25% of total GHG emission contribution, but coming closely after is the Food, Agriculture, and Land Use sector estimated at 24% of total GHG emission contribution. While we reduce our energy emissions, we also need to strategize for how we can protect and preserve natural carbon sinks (Amazon rainforest, Leuser Ecosystem, mangroves, the ocean!) and push for government to legislate policies that eliminates/discourages the import and sale of factory farmed animals, GMO crops, monocultures etc.

(2) Consuming a plant-based diet will help to reduce our impact on climate.

As a huge advocate for encouraging people to shift to a PB diet, I’m fully aware of how misleading this can become. Not all plant-based diets are made equal. A heavily processed diet, a diet that relies on GMO/monocultural soy/pea/wheat/corn, and one where food is packaged in layers of non-biodegradable packaging, might still have a lesser impact on carbon emissions as opposed to a meat heavy diet (depending on how the animal was raised), but what we need to acknowledge is climate change is not only a problem of excess carbon emissions, and moreover, climate change is not our only problem. The food choices we make also impact our health, soil quality, social welfare, water and waste pollution, and so on and so forth, which all either mitigates/exacerbates the impact climate change will have on us. According to Project Drawdown, “among the most fundamental research findings on this topic is that healthier diets tend to also be low-emission diets (Bajželj et al., 2014; Tilman and Clark, 2014; Stehfest et al., 2009). While plant-rich diets are not necessarily the lowest-emission diets, they represent a significant improvement over current dietary practices, particularly those in countries like the USA and Australia [and Hong Kong in our case] where meat (and especially beef) consumption is high.”

This is why as much as we should be shifting away from heavy meat intake, we should equally be avoiding heavily processed and packaged foods at all cost.

Photo: Char Siu Rice – from a screencap via the ZFPA launch video by Capsule 48

Who are the pioneers leading the sustainability movement in Hong Kong / Asia?

I think everyone across all sectors plays a part in conserving and protecting our planet. I truly can’t pick any one in particular, because we’re all in this, doing the hard work, sometimes without clear directions, together.

What projects are you currently working on?

On Grassroots Initiatives, we are currently working on a number of educational institution collaborations. It’s been one of my goals to normalize sustainable and responsible hospitality and culinary training in our schools’ systems. So this is a big step for us. On ZFPA, every day is a new day for learning and opportunities to do more. Outside of securing more restaurants partnerships, getting grants to farmers, and creating allyships with various organizations, we’re also piloting the Carbon Neutrality Program with a UK based carbon assessment platform, City U SEE and a few selected food operators ready to go through an experiential and mind-blowing journey with us. Personally, upskilling is essential to me and my growth and with all of that’s developing and changing in policies, and business operating criterias, I’m currently taking an online short course with the University of Cambridge on Business and Climate Change: Towards Net Zero Emissions.

What’s next for Zero Foodprint Asia?

We’ve only just gotten started but in 8 months we’ve been able to raise over HKD800,000 with our 11 restaurant partners and several other donors. We see this progress at least five-folds by next year with more of our industry’s and diners’ support! Follow us at @zerofoodprint.asia, frequent our ZFPA restaurant partner establishments, and encourage your favourite eateries to join the movement! http://www.zerofoodprintasia.org/join-zfpa

For consumers, go watch Kiss the Ground and The Biggest Little Farm to understand better how soil and ecosystem biodiversity is the most impactful solution to our food and climate crisis.