“Have you got used to the food?” After “Where are you from?,” this is the most common question for foreigners in China.
Food is an essential element of Chinese culture, and people know that strangers may like it, but also find it hard to manage. This is mirrored by friends and relatives outside of China asking if one finds enough decent things to eat. Attitudes toward Chinese food go along the lines that it is very strange and hard to get used to, but it is also an expression of China’s long history and diversity.
Nowadays, the food situation seems to reflect China’s rapid growth, with little regard for environmental and health considerations.
As someone involved in the debate over slow food, including sustainable development and its relationship with the way we eat and the relationship between food security and agricultural diversity, there is another side to this story. The price and availability of different kinds of food is a major influence on normal diets, and China’s less developed agricultural economy, with its relative lack of large scale industrial production and supermarket sales, is actually a great asset.
Of course, if one looks at GDP alone, it may be most efficient to industrialize agriculture, and have few farmers and large fields cultivated using heavy machinery. When producing for the international market, it can be better to sell processed goods than the agricultural products themselves. Traditional Chinese products could be a hit on the global market; I was recently at the China International Capsicum Expo (on chile peppers and products made from them), and though much of the production is not yet at a level where it could work on the global market, it could move there very well. Modern plant breeding and growing methods have also brought about much needed increases in yield.
It’s all too easy, though, to see industrial development as the only path forward. In developed countries, however, we’ve seen the damage done by a focus only on production and profit; a food culture focused only around unthinking consumption, and the resulting epidemic of obesity, tooth decay, and diabetes – so closely linked to the Western food culture that they’ve been grouped together as the “diseases of civilization” when they’ve impacted traditional cultures like Samoa.
The costs to individual and public health are growing; food companies are profiting, but the only benefit to ordinary people is low prices for bad food.
In China, in contrast, one of the first things I noticed was how prevalent market stands selling fresh fruit and vegetables are. Typically, sweets or convenience food from the supermarket will be the more expensive choice. Compare this to the village in Europe where I grew up, where the local fruit and vegetable seller had to close a decade ago as people got more and more used to driving to the supermarket and buying ready-made “meals.”
Nowadays, it is the poor and less educated people in Europe and the US who have a problem with obesity and malnutrition. Well-educated and richer people are the ones who have the time, motivation, and money to go to markets, select carefully, and actually cook meals.
This, in fact, is why food is a part of culture; it’s not just about meeting immediate needs, but about coming together to share meals and finding ways to be and remain healthy.
China has a good chance to avoid the “diseases of civilization,” and to maintain an agricultural economy that is both local and integrated into the world markets. With the variety of ingredients in traditional Chinese food, and the high regard that local cuisine is held in, China still has a more healthy food environment than the US or many parts of Europe.
The challenge is to find ways to keep these traditions alive, to modernize agriculture in ways that don’t blindly follow the industrial model, and to clean up the environment so that the food is clean and healthy. For the pleasure of eating, and for the survival of an ancient food culture, it is a worthy struggle.