My friend and former colleague, Prashant Vaze, is in Hong Kong and sends me an update on food and produce that he finds there. It is the take of a veteran environmental economist, never off guard.
” The Cantonese are major foodies. I mean this in the sense they really care about the food they eat. They scour the globe for the choicest foods: live crabs from Cornwall, rock lobsters from New Zealand, sea cucumbers and abalone (sea snails) from South Africa and the infamous shark fins from whoever will sell them.
Frozen seafood retails at a fraction of the price of fresh food so where possible these items are flown in, chilled but alive, at a carbon and financial cost and then presented in restaurants, supermarkets and wet markets. Customers either select the fish at the restaurant or bring their own. The chef despatches it, then serve it a few minutes later gutted, and stuffed with rice and spices.
It’s not just fish. The Cantonese are proud of their reputation of eating absolutely anything. My colleagues delight in taking me to restaurants and serving me some harmless looking piece of meat and proudly identifying it afterwards as chicken’s feet, pig’s cheek, or squirrel’s testicle (I didn’t in fact know squirrel’s had testicles).
But just because Hong Kong people are into their food – it doesn’t mean the food is necessarily all that good. Or even edible for that matter. At least thirty per cent of Cantonese food is off-bounds to me either because it uses gross parts of animals (feet, snouts, intestines), inedible species (crickets, sea cucumbers) or endangered species.
A friend from the environmental charity WWF told me that a street close to where I lived is one of the top spots for buying illegally traded ivory artefacts, cunningly labelled as mammoth ivory. It seems CITES, the international conservation agency, is relaxed about using species that are already extinct. Its disapproval is reserved for species on the brink of extinction.
As an economist though, I do worry about the sort of behavioural signal this sends poachers.”