Balancing culturally-appropriate food with ecological health

30 September 2011

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By Lotta Chan, CFJC Research Associate

In the food justice movement, we often hear that food is a right, not a privilege. But not just any type of food—healthy, fresh, affordable, accessible, sustainable, and culturally-appropriate food. In working towards securing these rights, the food justice movement is often in synergy with many other environmental, social, and economic justice efforts.

But what happens when efforts to secure these rights to food clash with other progressive efforts?

Three weeks ago, the California state Senate approved AB 376, a bill that would ban the sale of shark fins, which are used in a soup regarded as a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. Environmental and animal rights activists call the bill a “huge victory” for sharks, as 73 million are killed every year to prepare the soup. As a result, 1/3 of all shark species are nearly extinct. The sharks hunted for the soup also suffer a slow, brutal death, as their fins are cut off while still alive and then they are sent back into the ocean to bleed to death.

The Chinese-American community in California is torn: protect traditions, or protect the animals? Senator Leland Yee in particular has stated that the bill “sends a very bad message…that discrimination against Chinese-Americans is OK.” Other Chinese-Americans support the ban, however, aligning with conservation and animal rights groups.

As a Chinese-American myself, this bill struck a chord with me. Shark fin soup has been a part of my family and our culture ever since I can remember. It has been a dish served during special occasions—graduations, big birthdays, New Years, and weddings. It was never my favorite dish, or even a centerpiece of these celebrations, yet when I heard of the bill my first gut reaction was one of sadness. I thought, if I ever have kids, they will never get to experience this soup or the feeling of a special Chinese celebration. Isn’t it our right to have culturally-appropriate food such as the shark fin soup?

However, I am also a Chinese-American deeply involved in the environmental justice and conservation movements. It concerned me that so many shark species are nearly extinct. As top predators, sharks play an important ecological role in oceans. They regulate and balance marine ecosystems through their prey choices, which additionally promotes greater biodiversity and ecosystem resiliency.

As this bill sits on Governor Brown’s desk, awaiting his signature, I am still somewhat torn between preserving tradition and planning for the future. But in the end, I know that shark fin soup is not the all-important, quintessential element of Chinese culture. There are so many other beautiful traditions, customs, and culturally-appropriate foods that more fully define my experience as a Chinese American. Honoring and respecting ourselves and our planet are a part of that cultural heritage, a greater part than any soup. In the words of California state Representative Paul Fong, “I’m proud of my Chinese roots, and our culture will live and survive without shark’s fin.”

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