Don’t just protest; act

December 1st, 2015 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Food No Comments »

The climate change counter on this blog started, if I remember correctly, with more than 80 months before it’d be too late to do something to save the earth. Now it’s down to 12 months.

So, will they strike a meaningful deal in Paris this week? Don’t hold your hopes up. For as long as the big corporations that profit from globalisation hold sway while paying lip service to climate change, the planet will go to the dogs. For as long as we buy the argument that the world economy is more important than the planet, and that stimulating consumption is the only way to revive the economy, the planet will go to the dogs.

If we truly care about climate change, if we really want those who are still kids today to enjoy a beautiful countryside that changes with the seasons, clement weather that doesn’t flood, blow away or bury homes, and a decent, healthy and secure life, then we ourselves must take action. The most important things we can do are:

  • Eat less meat. Livestock generate huge amounts of emissions and take up huge amounts of land that can be used to grow food to feed many more people instead.
  • Travel less. Aviation emissions are particularly bad because of the altitude at which they are generated. Anyway, do you really want to go through increasingly tiresome airport security and delays, for the privilege of taking pictures at tourist sights that do not remotely reflect the way locals really live?
  • Spend less. Retail therapy is not really therapy; you end up more stressed staring at the credit card bill and wondering whether to rent a mini-warehouse to put all your stuff, and whether to throw a lot of it into the landfill.

These are not sacrifices; these are ways towards a healthier, less stressful life. And it also helps the planet. Time to act.


October 27th, 2014 atam Posted in Earth, Food, General No Comments »

Hey Halloween is here and you’d better be scared: the pumpkin harvest has been bad in a variety of places and farmers have warned of a shortage.

What’s really scary though is the thought of all the water and energy that go into producing a crop of pumpkins just so people can play Halloween. According to reports, of the ten million pumpkins grown in the UK each year, only 5% is consumed as food; the rest are carved into pumpkin lanterns. Separate reports said that the soil in the UK is so degraded that there are only 100 harvests left.

Once upon a time economic activity had a social function. Cars were manufactured to transport people and goods. Washing machines were made to free people from domestic drudgery. Now most economic activities exist purely to generate a profit. Environmentally harmful activities are justified by the provision of dubious employment; take, for example, Halloween. What exactly do people do with all the silly costumes and decorations once the partying’s over? Do those who dress up as zombies and the like to entertain party-goers get a decent wage around the year?

When Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner called for tighter regulations of cold calling, the response of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau was that this could affect the jobs of those employed to make cold calls. So jobs are jobs, eh, regardless of their nature. Amoral governments want people to produce bigger families so there are more young people to maintain clearly unsustainable economic growth. More young people, more party-goers come Halloween, right?

Meat is not murder

July 28th, 2014 atam Posted in Animal welfare, Food No Comments »

Animal rights activists have it so wrong. In an increasingly urbanised world where the only animals people see in the concrete jungle are dogs in prams, where people spend all day shooting birds and killing avatars on their smartphones, compassion is in seriously short supply.

However, if you tell them meat is suicide, well, then everything changes. Just look at the number of people at MacDonald’s over the weekend. For years animal rights activists have protested against cruel methods used to raise factory chickens supplied to another fast food chain but hardly made a dent in the chain’s bottom line. Now people just have to think about all the expired meat they’ve put in themselves to realise that, eek, this is not exactly healthy is it?

The next challenge is to get them to finally realise that meat is not unhealthy only when it’s passed its expiry date; it’s unhealthy, full stop. Think about all the antibiotics and polluted feed that go into the animals. If people find the idea of drinking “reclaimed water” disgusting, even though the water has undergone treatment to get rid of all bacteria and pollutants, how come they find it OK to eat meat that’s processed in dubious conditions, from animals that are raised in unhealthy and unhygienic conditions?

Age is not the problem

March 5th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Food, General No Comments »

Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary keeps warning that the city needs to have plenty of reserves in store because its ageing population will impose an increasing burden on the government’s coffers.

Not if more of them are like Yuichiro Miura, the climber who conquered Mount Everest aged 80. There’s a nice company in North Point which had a receptionist who worked into her 70s. She became such an institution that when the managing director got to the office every morning, he’d bow to her before going in.

There aren’t many such companies in Hong Kong and there aren’t many such workers either. And at the rate the city’s young flock to dessert buffets around town, there definitely won’t be many of them around being active and productive as the decades roll on. Mr Tsang has reason to be worried, especially since he didn’t know how to raise additional revenue to cover the ballooning healthcare cost.

Well, how ’bout introducing a “sugar tax”, as the UK government’s considering doing? In various countries around the world, governments are waking up to the potential cost of poor diet and imposing taxes on sugary drinks, junk food or obesity itself.

Poor diet is not the only problem though; lack of exercise is also detrimental to health. Apparently some people applauded Mr Tsang when they realised he would not be raising the first registration tax for cars. What was he thinking? In a densely packed city with an excellent public transport network, why let people burn fossil fuels clogging up the roads? On a minibus once, I saw a man hop on at the top of some steps leading to a road about 150 metres downhill – where he got off, after the minibus had negotiated the bend that led from the upper road to the lower one. He wasn’t even obese. Is there anything wrong with a little bit of walking?

Mr Tsang’s budget speech came barely one month after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced the release of its Fifth Assessment Report, the summary of which began, in bold, with: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, human influence on the climate system is clear, and limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Not that Mr Tsang made any reference to any government plan to address the issue. Definitely not a carbon tax, shock horror. Especially not when nothing but a bout of severe cold has affected Hong Kong, even though the eastern parts of Canada and the US were swept with ice storms, the UK suffered the biggest deluge in more than a century and Singapore and Malaysia are suffering unprecedented drought.


February 12th, 2014 atam Posted in Food, General 1 Comment »

Something’s changed about this Chinese New Year. Instead of wishing each other wealth and prosperity, most people are wishing each other good health and happiness.

It may be that the traditional “Kung Hei Fat Choy” is now considered old-fashioned. However, if the preferred greeting reflects a change of values, then it’s good news indeed and can’t come at a better time.

If research from a Canadian university is anything to go by, then wealth only brings trouble and disease. According to the research from Simon Fraser University, obesity and type 2 diabetes are spreading in developing countries as people become more and more well-off. As they watch more TV, drive more cars and play with computers more often, they exercise less and less. Worse still, western fast food is considered a kind of aspirational food. It may be full of fat and sugar, but eating it marks one out as someone with considerable disposable income.

The researchers do not find the same increase in rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in developed countries. Before you cheer, note the reason: it’s because the current rates are already high.

Developed countries consider Cuba a basket case, but we’ve got much to learn from it, quite apart from the wonderful Latin jazz. When the Cuban economy collapsed after the country’s main patron, the Soviet Union, disintegrated in the 1990s, its citizens were forced to grow their own food, walk more and eat less, particularly meat products. The result: they became healthier. But when their economy recovered? So did the rates of various diseases.

There’s a call for another increase in tobacco tax, but you know what’s funny? Those who succumb to smoking-related diseases tend not to hang around as long as those who are afflicted with obesity-related ailments. In other words, the latter impose a much higher cost on the medical system. If a government is wise, it’d do something about that and not just cigarettes. The British government’s been mulling a junk food tax and Mexico has gone ahead with it. Well, Mexico has to do something: the country with the highest per capita coca cola consumption in the world is also the fattest in the world.

So, do we really want good health?

Thank you Jason Wordie

August 6th, 2013 atam Posted in Earth, Food, General, Greenwash No Comments »

A tea connoisseur I know who regularly brews tea that costs thousands of dollars per tael takes his hobby really seriously. Not only does he use the finest porcelain cups and pots to make his tea, he also collects litres of mountain runoff for the purpose, every day.

I used to think the people who lug huge containers to hiking trails to collect water were superstitious folks who thought the water had magical properties. Turns out, it simply tastes better and is full of minerals too.

So a big thank you to Jason Wordie for pointing out the superior properties of Hong Kong water in a recent piece in the Post Magazine. I hope lots of expats read that and will stop hoarding trolley-fuls of bottled water home for consumption, as if the water that comes out of the tap is too poisonous to drink. Although tap water is not necessarily mountain runoff, it is treated to a high standard and I can bet you anything you won’t find traces of Prozac in it, like you would in the UK.

I also hope all those who think nothing of paying for bottled water just ‘cos they can’t be bothered to fill and carry around a water bottle will rethink their habit and stop fattening the wallets of already-rich corporations. Isn’t it funny how an outcry is inevitable whenever an increase in the water tariff is suggested, and yet we’re prepared to pay ridiculous amounts of money to buy the stuff when it’s bottled and marketed with a nice image?

And speaking of water tariff, it’s been known for a while how the low rate has encouraged profligacy, but it’s just too politically sensitive, especially when a government lacks governance, to raise the prospect of increasing it. It’s not just our freshwater use that’s heavily subsidised either; our use of seawater for flushing is too. We pride ourselves on saving lots of freshwater by having a system that uses seawater for flushing, but we’re not told the cost of treating that seawater when it goes down the drain. The salinity of such effluent makes it more difficult to treat, which translates into higher wastewater treatment cost. And we’ve not even factored in the power consumption associated with pumping all this effluent to the Stonecutters Island plant for treatment.

If all of this is a necessary evil, can we not at least try to minimise it?

Vertical farming comes to Tai Po

July 22nd, 2013 atam Posted in Building, Food, General No Comments »

Someone’s proposed building vertical farms that they claim will produce enough vegetables to feed the whole of Hong Kong, without even using soil.

And there are futuristic artist’s impressions to show what they’d look like. Except, of course, they kind of work like those property sales brochures where they show you the views minus surrounding developments. If Tai Po is this open, wouldn’t it be more resource-efficient to just farm on the ground? If Tai Po is set to be as crowded as Kowloon, would there be enough sunlight to grow the vegetables, whichever direction the floor slabs turn? The idea of these structures puncturing the landscape isn’t exactly appealing either.

Rather than separate vertical farms, how ’bout incorporating them into habitable buildings? Green the urban landscape. Give people the space to grow their own. You could even have whole residential estates designed with balcony farms and sell the flats to green fingers so they don’t have to price out organic farmers in their search for plots to grow their own vegetables.



Sustainable seafood

July 12th, 2013 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth, Food No Comments »

More people are aware of the cruelty of the shark’s fin trade now, to the extent that some young people say they won’t have it at banquets. But what about the humble tuna? There is no shocking video showing what fishermen do to the tuna they catch like the shocking sharks videos, but tuna is also a big fish that is essential to the marine ecosystem and the oceans are rapidly running out of them.

In fact, the oceans are rapidly running out of more and more types of fish, as WWF’s updated sustainable seafood guide shows. Some that were OK to eat in the last edition of the guide have been moved up to the “Avoid” category now. The ones that caught my eye are those that one doesn’t have to go to a seafood restaurant for a special dinner to have; they’re the salmon and tuna that you get from any sandwich outlets. If we consider that the prawns and shrimps that go into every dim sum in Hong Kong are under the “Avoid” category, the situation is dire indeed.

Have a banana instead!

June 6th, 2013 atam Posted in Food, General 1 Comment »

A drugs manufacturer has issued a global recall for a product used to treat people with insufficient potassium. Which makes one wonder: why do people have to pop a pill to make up for a lack of potassium? Can’t they eat a banana instead? Or a potato, or avocado, or even just some baked beans?

Our world is getting truly surreal. Production lines are being set up at great cost to make even bigger profits out of making things that we can get for free or far more cheaply. People are not just prescribed potassium tablets when they can get it from the foods mentioned above, but also artificially manufactured vitamin D pills when they can just stick some skin out under the sun for 15 minutes a day (alternate the arms if you’re worried about premature wrinkling; not that 15 minutes would do much harm) so that their bodies can manufacture their own.

When we fail to maintain a balanced diet and exercise regularly, the solution apparently is to medicalise the problem rather than to change our lifestyle. And because we’d rather pop pills than eat healthily and exercise, the pharmaceutical industry makes billions that would be much better spent improving conditions for millions in developing countries where people still suffer from cholera, dysentery and malaria.

Of course, it suits the industry that we prefer to pop pills rather than take care of ourselves. When we suffer chronic lifestyle diseases, guess who profits?

Anyone thinks about food security?

June 4th, 2013 atam Posted in Climate change, Food No Comments »

From Europe to Asia, food scandals are everywhere as greed and the global food supply chain combine into a truly toxic mix. What’s worse, we have to pay increasingly high prices for all that poison.

Has it occurred to anyone that locally grown food is important to Hong Kong, not only because it’s more easily traceable but also because it can provide a buffer against erratic imports, something that will get worse as climate change-induced episodes of droughts and flooding occur more frequently?

Nope. The thoughts are only for real estate. In a news report about Henderson Land’s clever proposal to “donate” a plot to the government to be turned into HK$1 million starter homes (the developer thereby getting infrastructure built to its other land holdings in the area for free), there was a picture of the plot, which is currently farmed and looks ready for a healthy harvest. Well, not for much longer.

There’s an organic farmer who’s been kicked off his farm after the landlord hiked the rent. It’s a profitable business, you see. More and more people appreciate the benefits of homegrown food but, ironically, their interest in renting small plots to grow their own at a price substantially higher than what an organic farmer can afford means the latter is forced out, to the detriment of consumers who can’t afford the time and/or money to do their own weekend farming. And these weekend farmers will be forced out too, in their turn, when the rapacious landlords finally find an opportunity to turn the land into more real estate. So the soil that the farmers have lovingly rehabilitated so it can yield food to nurture us is concreted over and sold for profits that go into the pocket of only a few persons.

It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a visionary government that required new buildings to integrate vertical farms, but all we have are the same old residential blocks, built at lowest cost to offer the smallest flats, often not for living in, but as a kind of investment.

Meanwhile, people only moan because, unlike electricity tariff and transport fare, there is no single organisation at which they can vent their spleen at higher and higher prices. Except beef, because there’s only one importer, and this is one food that we need to cut back on in the first place because cattle rearing takes up so much land and emits so much methane. So while the UN’s urging people to eat less meat, the Hong Kong government is telling people they’ll see what they can do to increase meat consumption. What are they thinking?