In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the United States and other countries are pressuring China and all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to permanently close their wet markets. But some social scientists argue that closures could lead to food insecurity and economic instability of many local residents.
When the COVID-19 pandemic spread early this year, disease experts implicated wet markets as a source of the outbreak. But recent evidence from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that wet markets were not the source of the disease and closures may not prevent another pandemic. And closures might actually do more harm than good.
“Shutting [wet markets] down might impact food safety and security for consumers. These markets are an important part of Chinese culture,” Dr. Laura Kahn, physician and research scholar at Princeton University, tells Food Tank.
Wet markets provide an affordable source of fresh, locally-grown produce and other foods. In areas with little to no refrigeration, “live animal markets make sense because meat and other animal proteins stay fresh as long as the animal is alive,” Kahn tells Food Tank.
Wet markets also provide a stable livelihood to scores of independent small-scale farmers. The wildlife farming industry in China is valued at US$74 billion and is a source of income for more than 14 million people, according to a report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering
This is not the first time there have been calls to close wet markets. In 2003, the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) spread to 26 countries and infected more than 8,000 people, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). SARS was thought to have originated in a Chinese wet market. However, once the pandemic began to slow, research into the role wet markets played began to subside.
While closing wet markets outright may not be the best solution, a survey performed by the World Wildlife Organization shows that many individuals in Asian countries support prohibiting the sale of wildlife in these markets. It suggests an effective solution may involve a combination of more regulatory oversight, limiting wildlife sale in wet markets, and a gradual cultural shift at the ground level.
When determining a solution, an understanding of cultural norms surrounding food trends that drive consumer demand will need to take priority, Kahn says. Wildlife products are an important part of traditional Chinese medicine and beliefs about the powers of food from wild animals underscore their value to many Chinese consumers.
According to Kahn, unless regulations account for cultural norms, forced closures may drive people to run markets illegally. Without regulation and oversight, disease spread may pose an even greater risk.
For now, the Australian government is pushing for an international scientific investigation into the health risks associated with wet markets and the WHO recommends the markets adhere to strict food safety and hygiene standards.
“We’re still not sure about the origin of the virus. What is clear, however, is that coronaviruses are zoonotic and come from animals. It’s not so much the live animals, but what type of animals pose the most problems,” Kahn tells Food Tank.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash, Hiep Duong