Wet markets- why they shouldn’t be abolished.
Covid-19, a new breed of coronavirus, spread from Wuhan, Hubei Province in China in late 2019, and in a matter of a few months turned into a full-blown global pandemic. This new form of the coronavirus is of the “Zoonotic” kind i.e., it is a disease that infected humans from animals. The virus “jumped” from an animal to human in December 2019— formally known as a “zoonotic spillover”— and Chinese scientists have tracked the possible source to Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. 27 of the first 41 hospitalized patients had visited the same market, though not the first-ever recorded patient, as per research by a team of Chinese experts published by The Lancet. The market closed on the 1st of January 2020, in light of disinfection and sanitary procedures. According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 33 of 585 environmental samples obtained from the market indicated evidence of the disease.
(The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Photographer: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)
Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was one of the many “wet markets”— a term born in Hong Kong and Singapore English to distinguish between fresh meat markets and dry markets that sell packaged, durable goods such as textiles— of China. Along with seafood, it offered a variety of wild animals, and scientists speculated that this exotic fare was where the virus “jumped” to humans. Further investigation revealed genetic evidence that pointed to bats as the source, which are not the most widely sold produce of these markets, but are believed to be the source of many zoonotic diseases.
In the wake of the pandemic, the wet markets have made global headlines, in tones and words that present a view that would be considered distasteful to the western world. The focus on the exotic consumption habits of the Chinese often relies upon Orientalism and is occasionally tinged with Sinophobic sentiments.
Specifics on what species the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, or any market includes and how much they are sold are distorted by media stories calling for the eradication of these “wet markets.” Such reports lean heavily on a myriad of images and little information on the source and credibility of the images, And there is no recognition of the clear distinctions in cuisine across China. These incite a feeling of disgust towards the food habits of the Chinese. China’s food consumption comes in the spotlight of this process. Chinese forms of consumption, and the desire for “warm meat”— freshly slaughtered meat— hasn’t been heralded into the western norms of what can and cannot be eaten.
To western media, and subsequently the western world, “wet markets” are reminders of how different the ‘East’ is. To them, wet markets are disorganized, lawless oriental bazaars, areas where animals that are not food are sold as food.
This image is flawed; first, because it relies heavily on western norms of what is and what isn’t edible; second, it slaps the label of “traditional” upon a modern form of Chinese food trade and consumption; lastly and importantly, it misrepresents the reality of these markets.
A range of markets
In reality, most Chinese meat wholesale markets- be it seafood, poultry, livestock or anything else- contain conventional fare. A ‘wet market’ has become an umbrella term for a myriad of different markets. Several wet markets can be distinguished today, and the differentiating factors listed below are crucial in the assessment of the risk they pose in terms of emergence of viruses.
- Scale- wholesale or retail
- Kind of produce- Live or slaughtered animals, live seafood, fresh vegetables
- Animals- Wild or domestic
What the West conceives as “wild”, are mostly ducks, frogs or snakes bred in captivity. Poached wild animals are a small proportion of the produce.
A Chinese farmer’s perils
Media reports marvel a fair amount at the consumption of wild animals, though not much is said about why farmers produce them. As per an article based upon field research with farmers in Jiangxi Province, there are two reasons that brought a number of farmers into the breeding of wild geese at the end of the 1990s: one, a way to meet demand without illegal poaching , and two, a way to increase production value , particularly when these small-scale farmers faced industrial food production.
In the post-Mao period of Chinese economic reforms, which started in 1978, large,shared farmland was redistributed to separate, singular households. Specialised smallholder farmers targeting specific cash crops or livestock, such as chickens, ducks or pigs grew rapidly. However, in the 1990s, China’s “second leap” to increase the size of agricultural production with capitalised “dragonhead enterprises”—industrial food producers — built centralised supply chains, focused on slaughterhouses and distribution centers, and contracted livestock to small-scale farmers.
Post livestock revolution
Low prices and high input costs drove out independent smallholders. Livestock diseases, such as the Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, also contributed in driving smallholders out of these sectors. Unable to sustain themselves as local traders, many farmers were faced with a choice: contract farming for the industrialist, or to abandon livestock farming altogether.
Some farmers discovered an option C- breed local breeds and wild animals to sell for considerably more profits in niche markets. Most such animals were less often affected by disease than traditional livestock, often due to the limited number of them being farmed. Raising wild animals can be a road to steady income while still struggling to survive in rural China.
The variety of markets grouped under the term “wet markets” has provided important livelihoods to independent smallholder farmers. These markets usually have informal supply chains that help smallholders to transport animals to markets without the involvement of large-scale food processing firms that own and control slaughterhouses and contracts with supermarkets. Although informal, these markets are not unregulated. Routine inspections of “wet markets” markets by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and by sanitary authorities began after the SARS epidemic in 2003, as per the research Epidemic events: state-formation, class struggle and bio-politics in three epidemic crises of modern China.
“Wet markets” are an important part of the Chinese economy and social life.
While shutting down wet markets and temporarily curbing wild-animal trade has its advantages in terms of disease prevention, an abolition of “wet markets” would have unintended consequences in China, as it would affect food consumption patterns in unknown but dangerous ways. It would deprive consumers of a food sector that accounts for a good portion of their food supplies. With many farmers, traders and consumers involved, the abolition of “wet markets” increases the probability of an uncontrollable black market- history stands witness with the attempt of a ban in 2003 in response to SARS, and in 2013-14, to fight avian influenza H7N9. Risk to public and global health would be much higher than the legal and regulated live animal markets in China today. Live poultry and animal markets have often served as centres for early surveillance through the years. What “wet markets” in China require is more scientific and empirical regulation, rather than evolving into a black market because of abolition.