Every time I go into the tropics something always amazes me. It could be the incredible size of the trees in the rainforest, the warm & blue waters at the beach, or the roads built into the sides of cliff faces. In the case of Vietnam what amazes me the most is the diversity of food.
The Vietnamese seem to utilize just about every plant and animal they can find and every town has a local or regional dish. While I have definitely enjoyed the amount and variety of cheap food, I can’t help but wonder where it all comes from and what it means in terms of the environment.
One of the main research topics in our group is the relationship between food and environmental health. Brian Machovina and Ken Feeley have written a series of articles describing how economic growth in countries like China can put a real strain on the agricultural system and lead to further habitat destruction through the need to expand food production.
Vietnam is no China, but with 90 million people (13th most populous country in the world) there are a lot of mouths to feed. In order to feed all those people you need to use everything you can. When you walk through the local markets you can be really astounded by the variety of animal products available. For example, in a relatively small market in Ho Chi Minh City there are the usual chicken, pork and beef vendors but there are also people selling baskets of fried insects, the infamous roasted dog, mounds of octopus, fresh turtles, bowls of frog legs, coffee made from weasel excrement, even plates with plucked sparrows and pigeons caught just outside of the market.
In many of the more rural markets you really begin to see how the environment is utilized for food or personal enjoyment. Honey is always available in a variety of flavors. Local snakes are skinned and grilled for shoppers to enjoy. Forest mammals are often for sale either for food or just to have tied up as a pet and oddity in your house. Native birds are sold as ornaments to keep in a cage outside the front door. The list of native animal products goes on and on.
While I don’t intend to be overly critical of the Vietnamese customs and practices, I can’t help but notice that, like in many developing tropical countries, all the signs point to unplanned and non-sustainable use of the environment. In rural regions there is very little native forest left and forests are cleared to plant crops or graze animals almost everywhere that isn’t too steep. In the fish markets, overharvesting is painfully apparent due to the abundance of juvenile individuals for sale. Even the lack of proper garbage disposal poses a significant threat to the environment because trash clogs most major waterways.
Many people do not have the economic luxury to choose where their food comes from or how it is made. As a person living in a developed country with a reasonably good education, I have no right to judge the Vietnamese people on their daily living practices. Quite the opposite, I should use that education to make informed decisions about my lifestyle choices to ensure that I am living in the most sustainable way possible. So the next time I am at the store and see ‘Product of Vietnam’ on the label, I may do a little investigating first to find out if that product is made in a way that doesn’t overexploit the environment.