Photo: Alexander Zvir/Pexels.
The Hindi film Newton (2017) set in forested Bastar in central India has an interesting vignette on urban ignorance about Adivasi food and culture. A lively young Gond school teacher is the translator for the team overseeing an election booth. Nibbling on the red ants on a tree branch, she offers the ants to the earnest election official Newton. He remarks that it tastes sour, acidic. The ants are used to make a chutney, she says, noting bluntly that although Newton works in the nearby town, he knows little about Adivasi life.
Animals gathered, trapped or hunted from forests and grasslands or fished from ponds, rivers and seas have long been a part of the human diet, especially of people who live close to nature. Animal foods – insects, crustaceans, fish, birds, rodents and small mammals – are also traded in flourishing local markets, regular covered markets or open street markets functioning on particular days or daily. These markets serve a vital socio-economic role, providing livelihoods for vendors, food security for customers and critical protein for the poor, especially young children.
As local food cultures acquire ‘exotic’ value, animals have been transported across countries and continents, increasing the intensity of collection from forest or aquatic habitats, even as these habitats have shrunk. Many wild foods are also believed to have medicinal value. In central India, the bite of the red ants is the indigenous antidote for mosquito bites that could carry the dreaded cerebral malaria. (Allopathic medicine rarely uses wild animals such as snake venom as an antidote.)
The presumed medical benefits of certain animals or their parts, like the rhino horn or pangolin scale, has spurred a largely illegal global trade that threatens the animals to near extinction. There are serious concerns about the transportation of wildlife because of the likelihood of diseases spreading when many animals and different species are crammed together. National and international laws govern wildlife trade and transportation, but implementation has been notoriously difficult.
The apprehension that the novel coronavirus first spread through a wet market in China has led to an outcry, mainly in the West, for banning wet markets altogether. In January, Chinese medical scientists reported in The Lancet that 27 of the first 41 patients hospitalised with COVID-19 had ‘direct exposure’ to the Huanan wholesale seafood market, which had a section for wild animals. The very first such patient and 13 others, however, were not exposed to it. The market closed in early January and China has banned trade and consumption of wild animals for food.
The advocates for banning wet markets include anti-China politicians in North America; naturalists concerned for wildlife protection; vegetarians/vegans against animal foods; public health professionals apprehensive about disease-causing viruses; and many who are put off by unfamiliar diets. In April, The Guardian reported that the British Beetles star Paul McCartney had disparaged Chinese “medieval eating habits” and wanted their wet markets banned, which he likened to ending slavery. In May, the Canadian rock singer Bryan Adams abused the “bat-eating” Chinese on social media; he later apologised but denounced the “horrible animal cruelty in these wet-markets”. Supporters of vegetarianism, the celebrity musicians were also upset that their performances had to be cancelled during the lockdowns.
In New Delhi, Down to Earth reported that five diverse animal rights groups were campaigning to shut down live animal pet or meat markets: People for Animals, a wildlife rescue and conservation group; Humane Society International India, which campaigns against the trade in dog and cat meat; Mercy for Animals India Foundation, which is against factory farms; Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations; and the Ahimsa Trust, inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Buddhist. Sunita Narain, who heads the Centre for Science and Environment and edits Down to Earth, had earlier written: “The fact is that the virus definitely came from a province in China, where I have no reason not to say its citizens have a dystopian relationship with food”.
What makes some food habits dehumanising and unpleasant, dystopian, and not others? What makes some wet markets acceptable and not others?
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The term ‘wet markets’ emerged in the 1970s in Singapore, which recognises these as a national heritage. Wet markets are ‘wet’ because fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meat must be kept moist. The animals may be alive (such as live fish in water tanks) or frozen (kept on ice). Poultry may be killed and de-feathered on-site. Blood and body parts can transmit infections. The FAO biosecurity guide for live poultry markets and the WHO guidelines on healthy markets deal with avian influenza transmitted to humans through close contact with infected poultry in wet markets.
In northeastern India, wild foods are commonly sold in local markets. The Along market, in western Arunachal Pradesh, is clean and neatly laid out with a diversity of wild plants, fish and rodents. The Kokrajhar market in the Bodo area of Assam, with its live eels, birds and piglets, besides dried fish and meat, is a community meeting place. The Kohima Naga Bazaar has become a tourist attraction due to its crickets, hornets, caterpillars, snails, frogs and, especially, eels and snakes.
In metropolitan India too, many animal foods are sold in wet markets. In south Delhi, the INA market, named for the Indian National Army of Subhash Chandra Bose, is patronised by Indians and foreigners. Its closely-clustered stalls display a variety of dry goods and groceries, fresh fruits, vegetables and all kinds of animal foods. INA market is especially renowned for meat and seafood: lobster, prawn, crab, eel, mackerel (kingfish), sometimes even stingray, apart from chicken and turkey. These foods may come from farms, fresh or brackish water aquaculture, or be fished from natural habitats.
The wet markets of Europe and North America are known as ‘farmers’ markets’, which seems to give them greater legitimacy. Many years ago, I had a startling eye-to-eye encounter with a live octopus in the Camden Town street market in London. It felt unnerving because octopuses are intelligent creatures – as McCartney’s colleague Ringo Starr highlighted in his song ‘Octopus’s Garden’. Octopus and squid are still sold in that market. A 2016 news item about the transfer of a Spanish footballer to the English club Arsenal mentioned his parents’ octopus stall in the Camden Town market. Octopus and squid are prized delicacies leading to a sharp decline in wild stocks, in response to which octopus farming has been proposed – and critiqued.
In North America, salmon and seafood markets like the Public Market in Vancouver, Canada, or the Pike Place market in Seattle, US, are as wet as any Asian fish market but are cherished as cultural hubs. According to reports, the US has thousands of wet markets. New York has 70-80 licensed wet markets, many owned by generations of immigrant communities, selling duck, chicken, goat and sheep. The present pandemic has led to demands for their closure.
But tellingly, public anger has not been directed against industrial factory farms. Indeed, most of the poultry, pork and meat consumed in the US is produced in factories where animals are packed together in conditions that spread antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’. In India too, industrial-scale dairying and poultry farming is increasing swiftly – a threat to livelihoods and health.
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Lurking behind the ignorance of wild foods as in Newton or the visceral anger against wet markets as in Adams’ tirade is an implicit bias against other peoples and cultures. With her gentle forthrightness, the British primatologist Jane Goodall in a recent interview put wet markets into perspective. She said wet markets should not be bracketed with wildlife markets. Wildlife markets exist all over the world, as in the bush-markets of Africa, providing cheap food and livelihoods for the poor. Viruses jump species in the intensive factory farms of the West and in the wildlife markets of China. Goodall’s balance, while advocating changes in global diets and regulation of wildlife trade, stands out at a time when Chinese food habits and wet markets are being demonised.
Sumi Krishna is an independent researcher.