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“Wet markets” aren’t the problem, animal exploitation is. Choose your campaigns and language better.

I see a lot of anti-wet market petitions and campaigns being shared at the moment, and while I think they come from a well intended place, the ignorance of the language reeks of racism and classism. It doesn’t take a lot of reading to understand that a wet market, a term unfamiliar to many westerners until the recent Covid crisis, doesn’t just mean “wildlife trade”; a wet market is essentially any market that serves fresh produce, including meat, but also fruit and vegetables. The oversimplification of of the term turns it into a pretty cheap xenophobic (or sinophobic) shot that also screams of ignorance of the non-supermarket retail options most of the world have access to, or choose to use — Options which are very often more affordable and sustainable.

From a place of ignorance, the term wet market conjures up horrific mental images of wading through rivers of blood and animal entrails. But the term wet comes simply from the customary use of market sellers sploshing water around to keep their produce clean, fresh and cool. Yes some wet markets have live animals slaughtered on site, certainly not all though. And yes various animal produce is sold there. But so are loads of fruits, vegetables, spices, and other food and goods. They are essentially no different from regular markets in the west; albeit maybe more active and popular. So any call to arbitrarily shut down wet markets is really just asking communities to shut down their main source of food. Madness.

In many communities the wet market is going to be a cheaper option than the premium supermarket offer, full of processed and packaged foods. They give people access to affordable fresh food. And just like markets in any other part of the world that also means there is a greater sense of connection with the food in many ways — More traceability and accountability; a more direct link from producer to seller and consumer. In stark contrast to the packaged-up distant-from-production supermarket paradigm most westerners (myself included) are used to.

Where I am in the UK, supermarkets are convenient and offer a wide range of food. While local markets have in many cities gradually become smaller over the years, as people change shopping habits to become more reliant on supermarkets. In the city where I live the market is less than half the size it was even a decade ago; multiple fruit and veg sellers have shrunk down to just one stall (also now selling eggs since the stall selling them as a speciality gave up years ago). As demand has decreased the offer shrinks and these places become even less viable and appealing. Does my community benefit from pushing ever more of us to the supermarkets? Would communities in other parts of the world similarly really benefit from such a transition?

I’m gradually adjusting my only shopping habits to try and support the local market more now, because there are huge benefits personally, and more widely. The food is cheaper, and much of it is produced locally; by the stall holders themselves sometimes even. There is a tangible localism that benefits the planet from not shipping produce around the globe, or having to go to and from national distribution centres for supermarkets. And knowing where at least some of that food comes from makes me feel more connected to the food itself.

I’ll not pretend the local market is entirely virtuous, just like the supermarkets they sell out-of-season food, overly-packaged food, and food imported from far and wide. But in all cases they do so less, and give many more options to avoid all those issues. Meanwhile in supermarkets in the UK it can be hard to even find some produced not pre-packaged, and the out-of-season imported food is marketed throughout the year, with minimal adjustments made when local food does come into season.

My local market sells meat too. It’s not an area of the market I frequent, as a vegan, but the offering is, like the vegetable produce, much the same as the supermarket; but with greater focus on localism. While it does sell plenty of pre-packed meat, there’s also lots of meat sold to order, cut and packed on site. The images of exotic markets often show us much more visceral displays of animal carcasses and body parts then we’re used to in the west. While those are visuals I am uncomfortable with due to death and destruction they represent, is it really better for the consumer to be disconnected from the reality of what the food they are eating is?

Those calling for a ban on “wet markets” really have an issue with exotic animal trade, and poor hygiene standards where animal products are sold or slaughtered. Those are issues for sure, but issues that should be addressed by themselves, not wrapped up in a term that has far broader meaning.

While avoiding exploitation of wild animals is a worthwhile campaign, lets also not forget that all animal consumption of any sort has issues with both health and safety and environmental impacts. While we might currently be worried about a disease said to have jumped from bats and/or pangolins to humans, there are plenty of diseases of animals westerners are more comfortable consuming that are also dangerous to humanity: Mad cow disease and tuberculosis in cattle, or swine and avian flus that are right now spreading rapidly around farms all over the world.

Poor conditions in animal farming (including faux “free range” setups where animals are still crammed into barns) make disease spread a constant risk, resulting in huge use of antibiotics, building up another issue for humanity to face and we steadily eliminate many of these medicines due to increased antibiotic resistance. Animal borne diseases are just as likely to arise from Cheshire as they are from China.

And then there’s a whole host of other effects from animal agriculture. While we worry about exotic animal consumption, vast areas of land required to raise farmed animals are one of the main causes of human encroachment on dwindling wild spaces; bringing us ever closer to more unknown ailments like covid, ready to jump species. Growing soya is one of the main causes of Amazon deforestation, but the vast majority of that crop is used to feed farm animals, not humans directly. We could produce all the food we need on a fraction of the land we do now, if we just ate plants directly, rather than processing them through an animal — It takes several times the amount of land/water/energy to produce the same amount of food for human consumption at the end, when eating animal products compared to plants.

All the while, all that land use from animal agriculture means we leave ever less land for nature to exist in, and so ecosystems around the globe are dwindling to the point of collapse. All that extra crop production using fertilisers, and the waste from agricultural animals, also produces deadly run-offs pollution of our water systems. And the methane output from agricultural animals is a major contributor to climate change. If you’re concerned about the fate of wildlife, the impacts of eating any sort of farmed animal product should concern you greatly, and is something you can directly influence by your own choices, wherever you live in the world.

So a call to close down “wet markets” really is a call to end localism; a call to severe the connection between producer, seller, and consumer; a call to make food less available to the poorest; a call to wipe out a culture because it is different, not because it is worse.

If you’re vegan, please try to be a bit more culturally sensitive in your chosen campaigns — If you’re from another culture, think about the impact you can have closer to home, with people you can directly influence; and if you are looking to bring about global changes, be careful how you target your campaigns so not to disadvantage people you know little of.

If you’re not vegan, you should read up on the health and environmental impacts of your chosen diet, especially if you too are going to be critical of other meat-eaters, who might well be doing less damage to the world in their lifestyle than you are.


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