Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Preserving Agricultural Land for Food Safety

People want to have affordable housing. People want to eat vegetables without the fear of being poisoned. The second statement seemingly is a non sequitur. But it doesn’t have to be. Here is where sensible rustic planning comes in.

Thanks to the Land Justice League’s report on InmediaHK, we are told that the SAR government is planning to develop a new town in Yuen Long South and is applying to LegCo for funds of about HK$50 million to be used in hiring consultants to do planning and engineering studies in identifying suitable housing sites.

According to this document issued by the Development Bureau, the studies will form the basis for an official Outline Development Plan (equivalent to an Outline Zoning Plan in urban areas):

The Land Justice League has conducted some on-site investigation and found that a substantial amount of farming activities have been on-going for a long time covering over 10 hectares of land within the area earmarked for the studies. Most of the farmers are vegetable growers who have made a livelihood out of farming on land leased from the indigenous villagers. The vegetables that they grow are sold through distributors to the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market. Hong Kongers should be grateful that they still have the choice of safe, Hong Kong grown vegetables because of the hard work of those farmers.
Since the announcement of the earmarking of the study area, a few farmers reportedly have noticed some anomaly where some landowners have begun ending the farm leases and resuming their land.

The LJL report made one very valid point, and that is, that by arbitrarily making public a tentative map showing the study area, the administration is actually hinting to developers, especially those who are familiar with the land use conversion procedure, where to sweep up agricultural land for their hoard. (I took great pains in trying to explain in my book Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong how the large developers use this land use conversion procedure to their competitive advantage. I also made it quite clear that this land use conversion procedure should be thoroughly reviewed with regard to its fairness and efficiency.)

One very sound point made in the LJL report is that whenever government plans to develop a new town, all developers’ hoard of agricultural land in the area in question should first be resumed by government and then properly zoned and put up for public auction.

Suspected government-developer collusion aside, a crucial question to ask is: must the land in the New Territories be solely used to pile concrete on? In the present times when there’s one report after another of poisonous vegetables being shipped to Hong Kong from north of the border, isn’t it about time for the planners to begin thinking outside the (concrete) box and start looking seriously at farming as a viable local industry, food safety and sustainable agricultural land use? Is there a way for housing and farm land to co-exist? Apart from farm use, are there other compatible uses like open air farm produce markets, flea markets, cooked food markets etc. (like those popular “marches” in urban and suburban France) that can be considered as viable zoning?

While I concur with the suggestion in the report that the land currently being used for farming should be taken out of the study area altogether to protect the farmers, I think we could go one step further and start considering the active preservation of agricultural land for exclusive agricultural use (i.e. application for land use change not to be allowed).

As early as the 70s, British Columbia already saw the importance of agricultural land preservation. The province introduced the Agricultural Land Commission Act in April 1973. An Agricultural Land Commission was set up and charged with the duty to designate a provincial Agricultural Land Reserve (“ALR”) and to encourage farm businesses. The ALR presently covers an area of 4.7 million hectares (5 percent of the province) and is a special zoning in which agricultural use is recognized as the priority use. It is typically difficult to apply for non-farm use where such a zoning exists.

Hong Kong may find the British Columbia experience worth studying. 


pickledplanning said...

When land availability and use is at such a premium as it is in Hong Kong then the land given over to farming must be a priority. I lived in Gibraltar once, there was no fertile land and everything was given over to building and development including reclaiming land from the sea, all food was imported. Maybe in Hong Kong growing vegetables, herbs etc on rooftop gardens is a way forward, communal gardens are being developed in the UK, often in densely packed, inner-city areas. Roof gardens can look spectacular, have a search for the University of Warsaw's library, and can also lower heat emissions from buildings

pickledplanning said...

a jar of the finest pickled planning!