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Not so easy for Asian organic farmers


Given the growing list of food safety issues, Asian consumers are joining the global trend towards organic produce. However, it is American, European and Australian producers that are reaping the benefits. High start-up costs, climatic difficulties and the shortage of reliable labelling schemes have left Asia's own organic farmers struggling to snatch a piece of the organic market. "People are more aware of health issues now," said Angus Lam of the Hong Kong Organic Farming Association (HOFA). "They have seen the food disasters in Europe; mad cow, foot and mouth. They are concerned about GM foods and this has helped awaken their awareness about healthy food," he added. According to the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM ), a group representing 700 organic farming associations from all over the world, last year, the international market for organic food reached US$20bn (Euro22.22bn), including Japan at almost $3bn (Euro3.34bn). According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA ), Taiwan ate $50m (Euro55.56m) worth of organic food and Singapore $3.5m (Euro3.9m). No figures for Hong Kong and Thailand were available, however the OTA considers them as emerging organic markets. Some supermarkets in Thailand say demand for organic foods increased 60 per cent last year, while in Hong Kong, local supermarket chain ParknShop said demand was "encouraging." While local supermarkets import organic vegetables from around the world and are providing customers with more choice, the issue of imports has split the industry. "The basic foundation of organic farming is respect for the environment," says HOFA's Lam. "The extra use of petrol and energy for transport, to keep things dry and cold in a refrigerated truck, goes against this. Also you see extra packaging on imports, including non-biodegradable foam containers. This is a very controversial subject." "We are also very much worried that organic imports might drive Japanese organic agriculture to the wall," said Sanae Sawanoburi, International division head at the Japan Organic Agriculture Association, a private sector organization with some 3,000 members. Last year, the Japanese government strengthened its organic standards, only allowing vegetables grown on land free from chemicals for two years to be called organic, dealing a bitter blow to some importers. But for Lee Chun-chung, who owns one of the 12 organic farms scattered across the hilly hinterland of Hong Kong, imports are invaluable. The local sub-tropical climate and its torrential rainstorms from May to September leave plants vulnerable to pests and weeds, all of which must be treated naturally according to organic farming guidelines. This means that the prices of organic produce are at premium. Imports also have an advantage on local produce because they carry a recognised, well-respected label of organic authenticity, says HOFA's Lam. Japan first had an organic label in 1992. Taiwan introduced its own government certification program in 1999 and an independent network of farmers and NGOs in Thailand have only just started to award organic licenses. Hong Kong's HOFA expects to launch the first organic stamp of authentification later this year. It should provide farms with credibility and customers with a quality guarantee.

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