The Case Against Wet Markets

They are culturally meaningful—and not at all worth the health risks they pose.

Tengku Bahar/AFP via Getty

A few weeks ago, before the coronavirus pandemic upended our daily lives, my Facebook feed surfaced a photo from 2018, in which I was cooking a chicken that had been slaughtered in front of me at a wet market in Essaouira, Morocco. Anthony Fauci may call wet markets an “unusual human-animal interaction,” but it wasn’t that long ago in America that chilled, mass-produced, and nationally distributed meats were regarded as unusual and inferior to backyard chickens.

Wherever I am in the world, I make it a point to visit links to the past. I’ve been to a rural slaughterhouse, killed a pig and chickens on a farm, and shopped and cooked food from wet markets, from Morocco to China. I can’t help but romanticize the markets, as an old way of life preserved against modernization, as a showcase of regional diversity and culture, and as a model of access to nonprocessed foods for various income levels. I’m not alone: These markets are often popular tourist destinations. And for the residents, these markets are essential, not despite China’s efforts at modernization, but perhaps because of them. In a report on wet markets in urban China, a shopper says, “Everything comes alive in the market. Sitting in the office, I have no sense of season. The seasonal, colorful, fresh food in wet markets tell me the season.”

But as the weeks on lockdown go by, and deaths mount from the coronavirus pandemic, we must ask ourselves: wet markets at what cost? It’s widely believed, but not proved, that the new coronavirus originated in a live-animal market in Wuhan, China; SARS is suspected to have originated in wildlife trade in Guangdong province. The exact origins of these diseases are hard to pinpoint, but wildlife and live-animal markets, with their mix of species in proximity to densely populated areas, are a risk that I’m beginning to question. Several lawmakers and public health officials are calling for widespread banning of wet markets. “It boggles my mind when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface that we don’t just shut it down,” Fauci said in a recent television interview. “I don’t know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that.”

First, though, a distinction that too many journalists and politicians miss, and which is important to get right as people debate the possible closure of these markets. Wet market is a Singapore and Hong Kong English term that is now being applied to a wide variety of food markets around the developing world, even though many of the markets look like the fresh produce and meat markets in Italy and France. In fact, wet markets tend to fall into three categories: those that carry wildlife, dead or alive; those that carry more common live animals, such as poultry and/or seafood; and those that carry no live animals at all. So calling for a ban on all wet markets based on the Wuhan wet market, which purportedly sold live wildlife, is like banning all pet ownership based on what goes down in Tiger King.

Wet markets overall should not be banned any more than farmers’ markets in America. They are more than fresh produce and meat: They are ways for consumers and producers to connect; they are forms of decentralization against governments and large corporations that people grow ever more wary of, whether in China or America. Live wildlife, however, is too risky to remain at wet markets. “The lowest-hanging fruit to lessen the likelihood of future pandemics is to close those markets where we have large congregations of wild species for commercial purposes,” Steven Osofsky, a professor of wildlife health and health policy at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, said in an interview for the podcast Excellsior. “When we harvest wild animals from all over the world and bring them into markets, let them all mix together, what we’re doing is creating the perfect storm. If you’re a virus whose goal is to spread, you couldn’t really design a better system to aid and abet a pandemic than these wildlife markets, particularly in urban centers in Asia. You have species that never under natural conditions would run into each other, all packed together, bodily fluids mixing, and then people come into the equation. Pathogens are meeting species that they’ve never met before. That’s when we have these opportunities for viral jumps, including the ones that lead to humans and create the situation we’re in now.”

But what is wildlife? In the past decades, China has encouraged wildlife breeding and farming operations for medicine, fur, and eating. China’s wildlife-farming industry for consumption, which includes species as varied as wild boar, ducks, snakes, and bamboo rats, was valued at $18 billion and employed more than 6 million people in 2016. Many of the animals sold in China’s wildlife markets are likely farmed (though wildlife farms are also notorious for laundering poached animals).

In America, as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to unfold and health authorities cautioned against eating wild animals, it was easy to scoff at this—I wasn’t planning on eating bats or civet cats—until my mom asked me whether I consider bison wild (yes?) and then pointed to the bison burger I was about to bite into.

There’s a trend toward more culinary diversity—more than ever, people are seeking cuisines from different ethnicities, heirloom varieties of vegetables and livestock, and, yes, even game meats, the consumption of which is on the rise in the U.S. The urge seems to be spurred by discoveries in a more global world, coupled with resistance to rapid modernization—not unlike the appeal of wet markets. But it’s clear now that the public-health risk posed by wildlife markets is too great.

China has already instituted a ban on wildlife trade for consumption (but not for medicine) following the new coronavirus outbreak (it did the same after SARS, and then let the restrictions lapse). Removing live wildlife from wet markets is not likely to end the eating of wild animals, nor does it remove the possibility of another pandemic—livestock operations also harbor viruses such as swine flu, the cause of the pandemic in 2009, which originated in pigs in Mexico—but at least it would give disastrous viruses one fewer fertile breeding ground.

Many people argue that the markets where animals are slaughtered represent an important way of life that isn’t easily replaced. That may be true. But it’s also true that this pandemic is destroying other aspects of how we live, eat, move through the world, and interact with one another. The old way of doing things is already gone. Not all of it will come back. Not all of it should.