We explore the challenges and opportunities inherent in the development of a more sustainable food industry in Hong Kong through the lens of leading innovators and pioneers in the field

Boasting what seems like an endless array of offerings, food is a fundamental part of our lives in Hong Kong. Yet recently, both restaurateurs and individuals have begun shifting focus and placing emphasis not only on serving and eating good food, but also on making it more sustainable. 

Take Phenix, an app targeting food waste in Hong Kong, which was launched in Hong Kong in February by OnTheList, a well-known members-only flash sales platform with more than 370,000 members. The app connects individuals to F&B outlets, giving them the chance to purchase at a discounted price food that would otherwise be discarded. Users choose ‘food baskets’ from one of Phenix’s 80 local partners, some of which include Pret a Manger, The Cakery and Little Mermaid by Citysuper

“At Phenix, we give the opportunity to F&B players to get a solution at the end of the food supply, a last chance for the food produced to be consumed,” says Anne-Claire Béraud, business development manager at Phenix by OnTheList. By connecting producers with consumers, Phenix has created a win-win solution to benefit both consumers, producers and the environment.

Phenix originated in France and is currently operating in six European countries; Hong Kong marked its debut in Asia. When asked about sustainability in Hong Kong’s food industry compared to other countries, Béraud points out that food waste, though garnering more and more attention, is unfortunately not seen as a priority in Hong Kong. The same is true more widely in Asia too. Yet Hong Kong appears to be going in the right direction, albeit slowly, as more organisations and companies are beginning to introduce sustainability initiatives that target food waste. As Béraud says, “sustainability in Hong Kong is late, but the future is bright and all parties need to be involved: the government, companies and consumers.”

 

Another pioneer in Hong Kong’s food industry is Food Made Good, an organisation which supports the food service sector on challenges such as food waste management. The organisation, most known for its food sustainability audits, is a chapter of the UK’s Sustainable Restaurant Association, and has a mission to support F&B venues on their sustainability journey. Its members include restaurants such as Arcane and Amber, as well as hotels and private clubs such as Mandarin Oriental and the Ladies Recreation Club. The organisation also works with industry partners such as WWF and World’s 50 Best Restaurants

Heidi Spurrell, CEO of Food Made Good, explains that in addition to sustainability auditing, the organisation offers services such as community events and general support, “providing guidance through any type of material we can guide them on.” She notes that “food sustainability challenges are far and wide, so we ensure we bring through a layman level of understanding—it can get a bit complex but we have a solid framework that helps determine what food sustainability is for the food service industry; everything is very structured.”

Having lived in Europe for most of her life, Spurrell is able to compare progress in Hong Kong’s food industry with that in typical Western countries. “Though sustainability trends like going plant-based or vegan hit the mass market in Hong Kong a few years later, they take off really fast,” she says. In terms of the industry’s most exciting developments, she puts a spotlight on alternative proteins, which she points out “are now being designed to allow chefs to add their own take and flavours into them.” Another promising development is filtration water, which she mentions more and more of Food Made Good’s members are switching to. 

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With regards to the future, there is more to be done. “What you want is sustainability to be the norm,” she says. “We have general things like getting rid of plastic straws, but we encourage restaurants to be a bit more ambitious. No restaurant will ever say their diners come because they are sustainable. It’s more like the food has to be tasty and if there is a sustainability aspect then that’s a real plus. People are starting to care more and more, but it's not mainstream yet.”

Targeting food waste from another angle is Daisy Tam, who is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University and founder of HKFoodWorks and Breadline. HKFoodWorks is an ongoing research project exploring Hong Kong’s food system through which Tam hopes to improve food security for the city. She explains that food security is “a question for everyone, not just the poor.” 

Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on some of the issues around food security. “What the pandemic has shown us is that the disruptions to our global supply chain affect what we have on our shelves,” she says. “At some point last year, even with money there were no vegetables on the shelves.” Therefore, through HKFoodWorks, Tam looks at how Hong Kong can become more resilient. “I’m interested in how we can ensure consistent and sufficient food supply, distribution and access for everyone.”

Breadline, meanwhile, focuses on food rescue, specifically with regard to bread. The app connects volunteers with bakeries to collect food surplus and transfer it to people in need. With a network of 65 bakeries and 250 volunteers, Tam proudly shares that the app recently passed its ‘60,000 loaves of bread’ milestone in the midst of the pandemic—an impressive achievement at a time where social distancing and food safety concerns put a halt on many of Breadline’s operations. 

Tam notes that the pandemic has a silver lining. “I actually found that people wanted to do more during the pandemic, that more people were willing to come out,” she says. Breadline not only became an outlet to do good, but it was able to bring the community together. Tam notes that parents wanted to show their children more, making bread rescue a family activity. She also praises her “dedicated team of retirees, who love coming out and being a little bit competitive on a Friday night.” “It’s a beautiful way of engaging and meeting people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all ages.”

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Yet there is still a lot of work to do. “Our food system is inherently wasteful because it's industrialised and the whole process is completely out of our hands at this point. With such huge, long supply chains, food just gets flown back and forth before it gets put on the market shelves. And so that would take a lot more effort, not just as a city, to change,” says Tam. “But I think there are again little ways which we can take our baby steps—shorten our supply chains, buy more local…this makes us less vulnerable as well.”

Tam adds that thinking about how a city feeds itself is important. “A healthy, well-fed, well-educated population is beneficial all around. Food is one of those amazing things that cuts across to public health, to medicine, to nutrition, to better mental well being, to better social relations…food is all of that.”

As for the future, Tam says “I want more people to be educated in the food system, I want more people to talk about it. I want HKFoodWorks to be a project that inspires young ones to think about sustainability from all different perspectives. So, not just bioengineers, not just nutritionists; I want every single person going into school, or work, or whatever it is, to have sustainability on their mind. This can be applied to a variety of things, from food, to fashion, in so many ways. It has to become part of the way we think and view the world.”

In a city where around 3,400 tonnes of food are wasted each day, achieving a sustainable food system is paramount. The food industry’s problems have been made clear in recent years and a heightening awareness of sustainability has spurred change. Individuals, businesses and organisations across Hong Kong have risen to this challenge, using their creativity and innovation to find solutions. Their determination pushes us towards a sustainable food industry which ultimately will be key to a better environment, society and community.