Monday, July 16, 2007

Consuming the environment

In Mumbai, seafood (Konkani, Thai, Chinese, western) is trendy. Even the Taj President has a Konkani restaurant. Such restaurants are open in every season, although the monsoon has, until recent years, been the off-season for seafood in Mumbai. What is all this seafood consumption doing to our fish and prawn populations, and to livelihoods in the long term? (And that is not even considering India's prawn/shrimp exports.)

The article excerpted below, from BBC Online, is about China. Since China and India are often compared in terms of rising incomes, rising consumption and environmental impact, it should be of some relevance to India also.

In the week that China executed [for corruption] the man once responsible for ensuring the safety of China's food and drugs, Fuchsia Dunlop, an expert on Chinese cuisine, finds tainted food has blunted her appetite...
The Chinese economic boom of the last two decades has led to a surge in banqueting, and the boundless appetite of the new Chinese rich for [the sea cucumber] has decimated its stocks in Chinese waters. These days the supplies that grace the dinner table come from as far away as the Galapagos Islands off the South American coast. If I eat one, am I contributing to the ruin of marine ecosystems all over the world?

...Chinese restaurants are the engine driving a global trade in endangered species. And in China, there is a thriving black market in all kinds of supposedly protected animals. I am offered them all the time, even at banquets attended by the very Communist Party and government officials who are meant to be enforcing environmental laws.

...My appetite is also shrinking because of the dire pollution in China. Last autumn I was in Suzhou for the hairy crab season. I revelled in the taste of this fabled delicacy... until I read in the papers that many farmed crabs were tainted with a cancer-causing antibiotic. And then I looked into the waters of one lakeside farm, and saw a swirl of oily scum and other muck.

Earlier this month government inspectors found paraffin wax, formaldehyde and other illegal additives being used in the production of everyday foodstuffs like biscuits and seafood.

...Many mutter darkly about the use of hormones in rearing livestock, and they seek out vegetables that have insect bites on their leaves - a sign that they have not been drenched in pesticides.

On my own trips to China, I eat less and less meat and seafood, because I just do not know what is in them. Instead, I help myself to vegetables and beancurd. But even they might be risky. According to official figures, 10% of Chinese farmland is dangerously contaminated with pollution. And the newspapers are filled with terrifying stories about poisoned rivers, lakes and reservoirs, their waters unfit even for irrigation.

...Beijing itself is said to have tried to cover up a World Bank report revealing that more than 700,000 people die every year in China because of air and water pollution.

China probably has the world's finest cuisine. After more than a decade of researching it, I am still astonished by Chinese culinary culture, and in awe of the skills of the country's chefs. But these days, as I sit down before their beautiful tables of plenty, the shadows of pollution and environmental degradation hover in the background. The banquets that once seemed to be a glorious perk of my job have begun to feel like an occupational hazard.

The meals that give me most pleasure are those in the remote countryside, where I can dine on wild mushrooms and bamboo shoots, and pork from pigs raised by people I know.

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