Commentary: Chinese conundrum

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Every westerner who travels to modern-day China comes back with some serious stories to tell, and after a three-day excursion across much of South China several years ago, I’m no exception.

Along with the incredibly vast, endless, seemingly never-ending panorama of sprawling, brand-name factories flanked by uniformly sterile, concrete dormitories for workers, that region of China is a place where there’s nary a square foot of land not being utilized as a living space, for commercial activities or as gardens or fish ponds crammed into impossibly tiny backyard plots.

That’s because there are millions and millions of people jammed onto those impossibly small yards, and they need food—lots of food—to maintain their existence.

As a result, the Chinese diet includes lots of “items” Americans would find revolting or just bizarre. While we strolled through the city of Guangzhou, I saw raw carcasses hanging in vendors’ stalls in the “wet markets” that I was at a loss to identify what animal they used to be.

Monkey? Goat? Some sort of feline? It was tough to tell, yet the meat was moving briskly as throngs of residents moved through the marketplace.

At one small stand, we saw a plastic kid’s swimming pool, where an elderly woman was poking around inside with a pair of chopsticks. Curious, we all leaned in for a closer look, only to realize that the pool was filled with thousands of angry, swarming scorpions, which she was picking up in batches of three or four at a time and deftly dumping them into paper bags.

“Soup,” our Chinese host explained. “They make a great condiment in soup.”

Along with mystery meat and live scorpions, the market also offered frogs, snakes and reptiles—not for pets, for dinner. Even more shocking, one stall contained dozens of stacked cages filled with barking puppies, a scene our host quickly steered us away from, since once again, those cute little furballs were destined to be on someone’s menu that evening.

Exotic and endangered

The Chinese appetite for foods most Westerners consider “outside the mainstream,” shall we say, is problematic, and not just because of the potential of zoonotic diseases—like SARS—being spread from wildlife to livestock to people but also because 1.6 billion people are eating their way through some seriously endangered species.

Here’s an example: According to the South China Post’s website, customs officers in Hong Kong last week seized more than $8 million worth of smuggled seahorse and crocodile meat being brought into the city. A 52-year-old truck driver was arrested at a checkpoint hauling more than 1,200 pounds of dried crocodile meat and some 680 pounds of dried seahorses, along with birds’ nests, dried deer tails and dried geckos—all stashed in a shipping container marked “Deer Antlers.”

Deer antlers? Seriously? Like a truck with a ton of cargo labeled antlers was going to dissuade customs officials from taking a closer look?

Of course, crocodile meat and dried seahorses are both obtained from endangered species. Seahorses are coveted in parts of South Asia for their alleged medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. Crocodile meat? Who knows?

Under Hong Kong law, anyone convicted of smuggling cargo faces up to seven years’ jail and a maximum fine of $2 million. In addition, those guilty of importing, exporting or possessing an endangered species for commercial purposes face up to two years in jail and a maximum $5 million fine, according to the newspaper’s reporting.

But this latest arrest comes after customs official recently made their third major seizure of illegal ivory in the last three months, according to the newspaper, intercepting 779 pieces of tusks weighing more than 2,200 pounds and estimated to have a street value of more than $10.6 million.

Wild animals have a precarious existence if they happen to live among the world’s largest population. Such “exotic” fare as monkey brains, bird’s feet and various organs of civets, foxes, and turtles are considered potent medicinal items eagerly consumed by millions of Chinese seeking longer life and better health. According to several news sources, including Legal Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper in Guangdong province that is translated by officials of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, more than 50 species of wildlife and many rare birds are near extinction in China, thanks to that nation’s appetite for such products.

That, combined with poaching and lucrative black market sales of various wild animal products poses what scientists call “a grave threat” to numerous species, if not entire ecosystems.

In November 2012, according to the academy, 20 white oriental storks, a protected species, were found dead in a wetlands preserve, along with hundreds of other dead birds, all poisoned by poachers who could then sell the swan meat at local markets for upwards of $400 a pound.

Despite government officials’ attempts to conduct raids and crack down on both buyers and sellers of illegal animal products, the outlook is grim. As many as 300 species have either died out entirely or are near extinction on the Chinese mainland, as of the latest scientific estimates done last year.

What’s the solution? Obviously, it’s greater public awareness, not only that the supposed claims for “magic” properties alleged to be gained by eating exotic animals are pure bunk, but that those animals’ disappearance seriously threatens the viability of the very ecosystems on which human life depends.

Here’s a thought: How about all the animal rights groups who work so tirelessly and spend so lavishly hounding American livestock producers turning their attention to reforming the eating habits and food production systems in Asia?

Instead of spending millions fighting to force poultry growers to invest in bigger, better cages, how about persuading millions of Asians that eating monkey brains won’t make them live any longer?

Instead of working to try to convince clueless Americans that animal agriculture is an eco-disaster that needs to be stopped, how about convincing Chinese authorities that they ought to step up efforts to educate their people that swan meat and shark fins and bear paws are connected to quack medicine, not to traditional culture?

To me, that seems like a much better use of their time and resources.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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