In the past two blog posts, we covered the first and the second parts of our workshop on Urban food, sufficiency, and sustainable agriculture in China. In this blog post, we delve deeper into the topic of wet markets, as they are placed at the intersection between food production and consumption, and the changes wet markets experience are highly representative of the general changes in China’s agri-food system.
Dr. Zhong Shuru, Associate Professor, School of Tourism Management, Sun Yat-sen University (SYSU), presented “The Key Role of Wet Markets in China’s Sustainable Food System”. Wet markets account for 50% of fresh food sales in China, down from 70% a decade ago. Independent food vendors run wet markets, and their main advantage is the freshness of their products. China’s wet markets vary in size and characteristics across different regions. For example, there are many wet markets in Chengdu but not many in Beijing, where they have become more strictly regulated. Providing fresh and affordable food for people, the wet markets also support the small-scale peasant economy, which is still extensive in China. In her presentation, Dr. Zhong asked whether wet markets could be part of the solution for sustainable food systems in China.
The wet markets have operation processes and distribution channels involving many actors and stakeholders. The vegetable market has a self-produced and self-sold area for direct distribution and a large warehouse that offers stable prices. The wet markets also support many small restaurants, which buy ingredients from the vendors at higher prices than ordinary residents. Dr Zhong also pointed to the existence and importance of small-scale, non-standardised wet markets without certification that cannot enter formal channels. Such markets typically pop up along a road or on a street and are important outlets for selling fresh food.
Dr Zhong also pointed out that wet markets face significant challenges and uncertainties in their development and survival. Some of the challenges are external, such as the competitive pressure of e-commerce, the emergence of community stores and supermarkets, the changes in young consumer culture, and the policy restrictions on food safety and hygiene. On the other hand, internal challenges include the lack of innovation and transformation, the loss of market authenticity, and the ageing of vendors and customers.
Particularly after the pandemic, wet markets are not a priority in the policy system and are often subject to cancellation and replacement by urban renewal projects. City governments instead pursue high-quality development and modernisation at the expense of small-scale markets and people’s livelihoods.
Nevertheless, the wet markets are not merely places to buy food, but also serve as cultural and social hubs. They represent local diversity and biodiversity. For instance, Dr. Zhong studied a wet market in Yunnan, showcasing the folk customs and eating habits of different ethnic groups. Wet markets provide residents a place for daily life and communication, particularly in low-rent housing areas. The markets foster emotional connections and relationships between customers and vendors, as well as among neighbours and friends. Through these markets, people can connect with their communities and roots and appreciate the beauty of different cultures and cuisines.
Dr. Zhong pointed out the importance of wet markets for China’s urban landscape and social fabric. They reflect the complex reality of China’s development and transition and its contradictions and dilemmas. The wet markets must be reconsidered and reevaluated, considering their economic, cultural, social, and environmental roles and impacts.
Funded by the European Union (ERC, MidWay, project 101041995). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.