A culinary delight or an environmental disaster?

I very much share the predicament expressed in a recent article called Refusing to eat shark's fin at a Chinese dinner party by a BBC correspondent.

Having chosen to be a vegetarian for humanitarian reasons for some years now, of course I do not eat meat or anything that would lead to the suffering of animals. I would dearly love to see more and more people do the same, being convinced not only of the various benefits of vegetarianism but also the problems and suffering that eating meat and other animal products brings. But there are certain food items that are particularly bad in terms of cruelty to animals and shark's fin is at the top of the list, so whenever I am at a banquet and people are enjoying their delicious shark's fin soup, I will be so tempted to give them a piece of my mind. But I am by nature an introvert, and I have no wish to annoy or upset people by giving a lecture on what they should or should not eat, so unless other people bring up the topic at the dinner table when they become aware that I simply wouldn't touch meat, I would keep a low profile about my dietary preference.

Fuchsia Dunlop, the writer of the article, was not a vegetarian, but she decided sometime ago that she would not eat shark's fin for environmental reasons. Now at the height of that feast she wrote about, a platter of shark's fin placed on the table got her struggling internally:

Reasons why she should not eat the shark's fin

  • The Chinese appetite for fins is helping to drive many shark species to extinction. A fifth of the known shark species are now under threat.
  • "Finning", where fishermen slash the fins from the sharks and throw their bodies away, is a nasty practice.
  • Eating shark's fin is something a Westerner with a shred of environmental conscience would condemn.

Reasons why she could disregard her pledge

  • Serving the extravagant dish was her Chinese host's grand gesture to honour her and a refusal to eat it might appear rude and ungrateful.
  • The dish was already on the table, so the dirty deed was done, and she had had nothing to do with it.
  • Shark's fin is not illegal.
  • Eating shark's fin may not be any worse than eating any other fish from a non-sustainable source, so why should Westerners expect the Chinese to give up shark's fin while they do not give up their tuna sandwiches and sushi?
  • No one outside that room need ever know.
  • Shark's fin is astoundingly delicious.

In the end, she chose to "discreetly ignore" it, but inevitably her host noticed and asked why. She was then presented with another dilemma - whether to wriggle out of a confrontation or to start a conversation about the moral and environmental limits of consumption. She chose the latter.

And the consequence? First, an awkward silence. Then she was thanked for her honesty, and a long conversation about food and sustainability followed. The writer didn't give details about the conversation, but concluded by saying that "it was an uncomfortable end to the evening".

But I think she made good choices on both counts - not eating the shark's fin and discussing the reasons with her host. It takes self-discipline to stay true to what we believe in, and it takes courage to defend it. It may not achieve the result we hope for, at least not immediately, but it feels good knowing that we have done the right thing.

By the way, Hong Kong is the world's largest trader of shark's fin.

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