A Defense of Wet Markets

A Camel Vendor in Fes, Morocco

Wet markets have been experiencing a bit of bad press lately. Perhaps that may be putting it lightly. Although not entirely confirmed, it is widely hypothesized that SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for causing COVID-19, first made the leap from animal to human in an open-air market in Wuhan, China. This, as I’m sure you are aware, is now regarded as the epicenter of the pandemic. How this happened exactly is still being debated by those much more qualified than I. Rather than get into the specifics of how, I’ll leave you to your own research. There’s a lot of speculation surrounding the topic, and I’d rather not contribute to any confusion. Instead, let’s talk about wet markets themselves.

There have been widespread calls for the abolition of wet markets from various western governments around the world, with Dr. Anthony Fauci’s note perhaps sounding the loudest note from an America besieged by the virus. In a post-pandemic world with few concrete targets to blame, wet markets can present an easy target. Distinctly foreign from what is normally found in a typical American grocery shopping experience, wet markets can seem loud, dingy, and dirty to an unsympathetic observer. present an easy ‘other’ for which to heap blame upon.

But what is a ‘wet’ market, exactly? The term is likely to have been coined in the colonial lexicon in the streets of Hong Kong or Singapore to describe open-air markets where fresh produce, meat, seafood, and other food products were sold. In this case, the adjective ‘wet’ is literal, as melting ice, or water used to wash the surfaces of the market leaves them, well, wet. Dry markets, at this point in time the less notorious sibling, specialize in textiles and other packaged products.

There’s an important distinction to be made here though. Part of the controversy surrounding wet markets, particularly markets like the one found in Wuhan, is that they often deal with wildlife, some of it being brought live to the market. When an across-the-board closure of wet markets is discussed, it is usually with the intention to put a halt to this kind of trade. The potential for environmental damage wrought by collecting wildlife, some of it being endangered, is high. Wildlife kept in unsanitary conditions also poses a much higher risk of animal-to-human viral transfer. This is a proven fact.

However, this doesn’t apply to all wet markets. While the distinction might be difficult to make for someone who gets their food directly from sterilized supermarkets, it is an important one nonetheless. Not all wet markets deal with live animals. It’s even less common for those animals to be wild even if they are alive, and an even smaller portion of those markets sell animals that are exotic or endangered species. While the selling of live, exotic animals connotates environmental destruction and an increased risk for infection for those involved along the food chain, a blanket target of all wet markets misses the point and stands to do more overall harm than the short-lived benefits that would result.

Open Air Produce Market — Sokoluk, Kyrgyzstan

Wet markets were even present in western society until somewhat recently. Les Halles, the famous Parisian market that would more than meet the current definition of a wet market, maintained its bustling hub status until 1971, and the city is lesser from the loss. Pike’s Place in Seattle, a popular tourist destination, may just be the most famous wet market in the world and remains in operation to this day (pandemic closures aside, of course.) These markets can offer a tremendous amount of historical and cultural significance. The Deserter’s Bazar, as it is called in Tbilisi, Georgia, is a bustling open-air sprawl that surrounds the central railroad station. It gained the name in the 1800s as deserters fleeing the Russian tsar’s imperial wars made their final stop to sell off their equipment before disappearing back to their mountain villages. Now, it serves as a place where you can find damn near anything, from jugs of wine, to masses of fresh produce, to a small corner of the market dedicated to a bike vendor. It also serves as an economic hub for internally displaced people, giving them a chance to earn back their livelihoods. To close these markets would be to lose this heritage.

Farmer’s markets have seen a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years. While usually not dealing in foods that appear exotic to the casual observer, the products being sold aren’t different at all from fresh meat and produce that can be found in the wet markets across Asia and the rest of the world. Although they may be different in appearance, the concept is the same; a place where we can revisit and regain a sense of our original relationship with food, where the majority of what we ate didn’t travel thousands of miles before it ended up on our plates.

To do away with wet markets completely would be an incredibly damaging move, no matter where this new policy might be enacted. These kinds of market places are an affordable, reliable way to acquire good quality fresh food, which often originates close to where it is being sold. In many places around the world, these marketplaces are deeply integrated into the local community. In addition to contributing towards a sense of community by creating a gathering spot for locals, they excel at providing a much better sense for where one’s food comes from. While supermarkets are growing increasingly common no matter where you are in the world, a commercial chain just can’t offer the same kind of contribution to a sense of community that an open-air market can.

In the west, farmer’s markets have somewhat grown to be a symbol of affluence for people who don’t mind spending more money on locally-sourced food products. However, in pooer countries, wet markets and other open-air food vending locations may provide the only opportunity for access to affordable food, as supermarkets can prove to be unaffordable for large portions of the population. To do away with them totally would limit access to food in addition to needlessly destroying livelihoods of those who produce and sell these food products.

Supermarkets seem to be winning the propaganda war in terms of portraying themselves as the safest option of where to buy food, even before being dealt a winning hand by a global pandemic. This more sterilized approach to food distribution favors large corporations because they are the only ones who can overtake the logistical hurdles needed to operate such an enterprise. They also have access to large budgets that allow them to push marketing campaigns that change perception to the public’s perception of what ‘safe’ food is. Although COVID-19 represents a stark example of the potential dangers of animal-to-human virus transmission, periodic E. coli outbreaks and other food chain contamination issues can’t really go so far to prove that a highly-industrialized system is any safer. How often is it that Chipolte has to shut down across the country due to people getting sick from its food?

Supermarkets definitely aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. In terms of getting a massive quantity of diverse food products to an equally massive number of people, there is no parallel. However, it would be foolish to make them the only option by default through abolishing open-air markets around the world. The immediate reactionary sense of relief by having taken action against these food safety issues would ultimately be undone by the long-term economic harm and cultural erasure caused by such a rash, unilateral option.

In the meantime, shop local for hell’s sake. It’s the best thing you can do at the moment.



Travel, culture, and food. I spend my days working for a Culinary Incubator Program in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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Xavier Quintana

Travel, culture, and food. I spend my days working for a Culinary Incubator Program in Salt Lake City, Utah.