Education for Sustainable Diet in Hong Kong

By Joseph Hung

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Background

1. Food Production in the Modern World

2. Definition of a Sustainable Diet

3. Factors that Affect Food Choices

3. Education for Sustainable Diet in Hong Kong

1.  The Hong Kong Context: Cultural, Socio-historical, and Economic Background 

2. Formal Curriculum

3. Liberal Studies

4. Conclusion

5. References

6. Key Terms and Definitions

7. Appendix

8. About the Author

1. Introduction

Food is an important topic in early childhood education. At this very early stage children receive messages about food culture, nutrition, and hygiene. In secondary school, students study biochemistry and explore different components of food. Recently the environmental aspect of food production and consumption has been introduced into the curriculum in Hong Kong. However, to achieve sustainable development for the society, it is important to not only include aspects of environmental conservation in food and diet education, but also such issues as equity, poverty reduction, food security, and cultural relevance, among others. Senior Secondary Liberal Studies in the core curriculum of Hong Kong has the potential to incorporate these elements. This entry discusses food literacy education in Hong Kong, and in particular, how Liberal Studies approaches the topic of sustainable diet and may affect people’s dietary choices.

2. Background

2.1. Food Production in the Modern World

Food is important for human life as it is the main source of energy and raw material for our survival and growth. It is also one of the critical economic products that people produce, exchange, and consume. Humans shifted from the hunter-gatherer model of food production to an agrarian one to support a larger population in the period of the Neolithic revolution. Food also evolved with the development of agricultural technology and the eco-geographical setting.

Since World War II, industrialised countries have revolutionised agriculture by increased mechanisation and the widespread use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides. There has also been an increased specialisation of crops and enlargement of farm size and related developments in livestock, followed more recently by the use of biotechnology in modifying plant genetics (Clunies-Ross & Hildyard, 1992). Not all of this development is ideal, however. According to an Oxfam report of 2013, 450 million people, originally farmers, now work as wageworkers in industrialised agricultural settings, of which 60% live in poverty and are facing starvation (Hoffman, 2013).

In addition, industrialised farms have increased pressure on the environment by using chemicals that transform land and machines that emit a large amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Vermeulen et al. (2012) calculated that food systems contribute 19%-29% of the world’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. One particularly important aspect is the global production of meat, which is projected to more than double, from 229 million tonnes in 1999 to 465 million tonnes in 2050 (Steinfeld et al, 2006). The expansion of livestock production causes land degradation, increase of fresh water usage, and higher levels of greenhouse gas emission. It has also worsened the food shortage problem worldwide as crops are fed to animals to boost their growth.

2.2. Definition of a Sustainable Diet

Gussow and Clancy (1986) proposed the term “sustainable diet” to “describe recommendations for food choices that support life and health within natural system limits into the foreseeable future”. They stressed the importance of understanding the effects of food choices on food supply, global resources (agricultural, economic, and natural), long-term stability of the food system, and individual nutrition and health (Gussow & Clancy, 1986). Since that time, there have been discussions and applications of the term in the areas of nutrition studies, development studies, and environmental studies, which complicated the term in connection with other concepts.

There is currently no universally agreed definition of a “sustainable diet” (He, 2012).  However, He, the Deputy Director-General of the FAO, proposed that a definition of a sustainable diet should “address sustainability of the whole food supply chain and thus provide guidance on promoting and applying the concept in different agro-ecological zones” (He, 2012). Hence, sustainable diet is informed by a multitude of issues in the production and consumption of food, including environmental, agro-economic, and human nutrition needs. Lairon (2012) lists the following components of a sustainable diet:

             food and nutrient needs, food security and accessibility;

             well-being and health;

             biodiversity, environment and climate;

             equity and fair trade;

             eco-friendly, local and seasonal food; and

             cultural heritage and skills.

2.3. Factors that Affect Food Choices

According to the European Food Information Council (2005), biological, economic, physical, social, and psychological factors, as well as attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about food influence the way people choose what they eat. These determining factors can be grouped into three categories. First, formal and informal education plays a vital role in promoting food literacy as it shapes citizens’ attitudes and beliefs about food, and transfers necessary knowledge for making sound decisions in choosing it. In Hong Kong, for example, children receive knowledge and develop attitudes about food in formal school settings and at home. Second, social and cultural habits of a place have a big influence on how its people choose their food. These factors include cultural heritage (culinary style), religious rules and the effect of commercial culture. Third, economic forces behind the food supply chain are manifested in the availability and affordability of certain products. Hong Kong, as a city influenced both by the Chinese cultural background and a globalised economy, provides a great diversity of food choices.

3. Education for Sustainable Diet in Hong Kong

3.1. The Hong Kong Context: Cultural, Socio-historical, and Economic Background

Hong Kong is a city in South China that used to be a British colony. It is one of the world’s financial centres, and its per capita GDP is in the world’s top ten (World Bank, 2014). However, it was not a prosperous place in the past. Historically Hong Kong was a popular refuge for Chinese nationals when Mainland China was at war or during political movements. Poor Chinese immigrants had to struggle for life in the city. The experience of World War II and the Chinese civil war as well as starvation in China put an emphasis on food security and food safety over other things in the view of Hong Kong’s older generation. Currently, Hong Kong imports over 95% of its food from all over the world.

However, in good times, Hong Kong people consume the best of food products and enjoy a great variety of culinary styles. The mainstream home-cooked food is southern Chinese style, or the ‘Guangdong’ style. There are few taboos in food choice. Hong Kong people eat different types of meat (including internal organs), fish, and vegetables. Most people think that eating meat is essential for potency and nutrition. In banquets, rare and valuable food products, such as shark fin soup, abalone, groupers, and others are offered to show generosity to the guests and show off one’s wealth.

Culturally, Hong Kong is also influenced by its colonial past and the openness of the economy. Western-style food is seen as sophisticated and is served in most restaurants, along with Chinese-style food. The city is also rich in restaurants with Japanese, Korean, and Indian cuisines as well as transnational fast food chains. This variety affects the dietary choices of young people.

The Hong Kong Department of Health has been promoting a healthy diet for years, recommending particularly that residents of Hong Kong reduce fat and salt consumption. Such a diet can lower the risks of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. A committee for reduction of salt and sugar in food was established by the Hong Kong government in 2015. However, since food has long been seen as an area the Department of Health should be responsible for, little emphasis has been placed on other aspects of diet such as those related to the environment.

In 2012, Green Monday, as part of a global movement, was established in Hong Kong to promote a vegetarian diet. The movement made a very strong media statement about the environmental problems that may arise due to the great increase in meat production. At the same time, the issue of food waste has become a concern in the city, as the landfills have started reaching their limits. Hong Kong people have thus only started to pay attention to the environmental issues surrounding food production and consumption. With the launch of Liberal Studies in 2009, teaching and learning about food can be revitalised.

3.2. Formal Curriculum

In Hong Kong, issues related to food are taught in general studies (primary school), integrated science and integrated humanities (junior secondary), and Liberal Studies (senior secondary). There have been studies carried out about food and health education in Hong Kong in the past (such as Chan et al., 2009), but no research has been done about sustainability in food systems (i.e., the whole process of food production and distribution). Students study basic knowledge about nutrition, hygiene, balanced diet, and malnutrition/obesity in the primary years (Education Bureau (EDB), 2002a). In junior secondary years, they learn about food in geography (farmland), economics (modes of production), and biology (the digestive system and human nutrition). Although the curriculum encourages project learning and other integrated teaching approaches (EDB, 2002b; EDB, 2002c), different schools choose issues they teach, and food is not always a popular choice in their project learning exercises. In the curriculum, the production of food is barely touched upon.

3.3. Liberal Studies

In senior secondary schools, all students study Liberal Studies as a compulsory subject. Liberal Studies has sustainability as one of the main concepts in Module 6 of the syllabus, and food production and consumption are popular topics in teaching and assessment. The DSE examination, for example, has a number of questions about food (see Appendix 1 for a list of all topics in the DSE LS examination about food since 2012). The examination assesses students’ knowledge about food safety, food and health, food culture, starvation, free trade and globalisation, as well as vegetarianism and human choice of food. It is likely that students gain a good understanding of the relationship between food and sustainability after studying the subject. However, this is not guaranteed, because teachers can choose other issues in their teaching to illustrate issues of sustainability.

Besides knowledge, development of specific attitudes and values are also key goals in Liberal Studies teaching and learning. Students, through their critical study of different issues and concepts from various perspectives, develop their own belief systems. The expected learning outcome of the subject includes an “appreciation for the values of [students’] own and other cultures, and for universal values, and [commitment] to becoming responsible and conscientious citizens” (EDB, 2014).

In most of the above educational initiatives, an “ESD1” approach is employed, as students study specific knowledge about the subject and develop “informed [and] skilled behaviour and ways of thinking” (Vare and Scott, 2007). However, “ESD2” is critical in the long-term as it builds the capacity to think, test ideas, and explore dilemmas and contradictions. In a fast-paced society such as Hong Kong, ESD2 is a much-needed approach to complement ESD1 in order to effect changes. Current and future residents of Hong Kong should learn how to make responsible choices in food products through education for sustainable diet. The spirit of the Liberal Studies curriculum should then include an ESD2 approach.

An obstacle to the shift in teaching for sustainable diet relates to implementation of the Liberal Studies curriculum. Teachers training still lags behind the curriculum changes of 2009, as teachers are not all prepared to teach such varied issues. Yet the way teachers make sense of the curriculum and choose their teaching strategies has a strong influence on the learning outcome (Mak, 2011). Furthermore, since education is only one of the factors that affect food choice, the strong cultural factor still dominates the decision-making processes of people. In addition, even though students pay attention to food mileage or sustainability, the shortage of locally produced food and the relatively high price of environmentally friendly food is a major problem that affects their choice.

4. Conclusion

Education is one of the major factors that affects the sustainable choice of diet. In Hong Kong, like many other places, students learn about food with a focus on its nutritional value. The environmental issues in food choices and sustainability are a novelty. The formal schooling system is fast in responding to global demands, with the introduction of Liberal Studies in 2009. However, improvement in teacher training is critical to achieve desired learning outcomes. Since cultural and economic influences are also strong, whether Hong Kong people can adopt a more sustainable diet depends on education.


Clunies-Ross, T. & Hildyard, N. (1992). The Politics of Industrial Agriculture. London: Earthscan Publications.

Education Bureau (EDB). (2002a). General Studies for Primary Schools Curriculum Guide. The Government of HKSAR.

Education Bureau (EDB). (2002b). Science Education: Key Learning Area Curriculum Guide (Primary 1 - Secondary 3). The Government of HKSAR.

Education Bureau (EDB). (2002c). Personal, Social and Humanities Education: Key Learning Area Curriculum Guide (Primary 1 - Secondary 3). The Government of HKSAR.

Education Bureau (EDB). (2014). Liberal Studies: Curriculum and Assessment Guide (Secondary 4-6). The Government of HKSAR.

European Food Information Council (EUFIC). (2005). The determinants of food choice. EUFIC Review, 4/2005. Retrieved October 26, 2015, from

Gussow, J. D. & Clancy, K. L. (1986). Dietary guidelines for sustainability. Journal of Nutrition Education, 18, 1-5.

He, C. C. (2012). Opening addresses. Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity: Directions and Solutions for Policy, Research and Action. FAO. Retrieved October 27, 2015, from

Hoffman, B. (2012). Behind the Brands: Food Justice and the Big 10 Food and Beverage Companies. Oxfam. Retrieved October 27, 2015, from

Lairon, D. (2012). Biodiversity and sustainable nutrition with a food-based approach. Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity: Directions and Solutions for Policy, Research and Action. FAO. Retrieved October 27, 2015, from

Mak, K. W. (2011). Making Sense of New Senior Secondary Liberal Studies in Hong Kong Curriculum Reform: Teacher Perspectives. The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P. J., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M. & de Haan, C. (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. Retrieved October 6, 2015, from

Vare, P. & Scott, W. (2007). Learning for Change: Exploring the Relationship between Education and Sustainable Development. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 1(2). Doi: 10.1177/097340820700100209

Vermeulen, S. J, Campbell, B. M. & Ingram J. S. I. (2012). Climate Change and Food Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 37, 195-222. Retrieved October 27, 2015, from

World Bank, The (WB). (2014). 2014 World Development Indicators. Washington, D.C.: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank.

Key Terms and Definitions

Sustainable Diet: food choices that support life and health within natural system limits into the foreseeable future. There is no universally agreed definition, but for a diet to be recognised as sustainable, it usually prioritises the following components: nutrition needs, food security, health and well-being, biodiversity and the environment, fair trade, and cultural heritage.

Food System: the whole process in which food is produced, distributed and consumed. Industrialised agriculture with giant transnational food companies distributing food products globally is the dominant food system in the modern world.

Food Literacy: The knowledge, skills and attitudes about food. Traditionally it has been composed of knowledge related to food choice and processing (nutrition and cookery), but is moving toward understanding of food systems and the environmental and social impacts of food production and consumption.

Appendix 1 A List of HKEAA Liberal Studies question papers with “food” topics since 2012


About the Author

Joseph Hung

MEd, The University of Hong Kong