Stick(y) issue in green drive

Stick(y) issue in green drive

Chopsticks are part of Chinese culture and cuisine. Eating food without a pair of wooden sticks, finely carved and rounded off at the top with blunt...

Chopsticks are part of Chinese culture and cuisine. Eating food without a pair of wooden sticks, finely carved and rounded off at the top with blunt ends, is unthinkable for the billion-plus population in the mainland and others of Chinese origin and descent living around the world. In fact, if any Chinese person is found using Western cutlery, he/she is considered as having insulted a tradition that goes back to at least 4,000 years.

Now, the custom is being questioned, not because it is outdated in a country that is trying to beat the West in every field, from fashion to food, but because of its impact on environment, not only in China but all over the world. Estimates reveal that the most populous country in the world uses a staggering 80 billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks a year, equivalent to the wood output of 20 million trees at the rate of a mature tree yielding 4,000 pairs of chopsticks. According to a report in Daily Mail, the chopsticks used and thrown away in China over the course of a year would fill Tiananmen Square 360 layers deep.

Since most of the wood used for making chopsticks comes from forest-rich countries like Malaysia and illegally, environmentalists are concerned about the large swathes of greenery disappearing and ending up as eating tools on Chinese dining tables. In 2011, a British group had warned that China was importing 180million cubic metres of timber every year and sounded alarm bells for forest areas if no measures were taken to cut down the imports.

Surely, a part of the imported wood must be going into the chopsticks business. As such the group's observation that "the fate of much of the world's natural forests is in China's hands" is unwittingly apt. It is also a view shared by Bo Guangxin, chairman of a state-owned timber company, who told a session of Chinese parliament recently that it was time to drop chopsticks and pick up reusable plastic and metal cutlery.

It is a suggestion worth considering; but what the official has glossed over in his enthusiasm to save the forests is it is not easy to change overnight people's habits running in their blood. Moreover, Chinese food � the way it is prepared and savoured -- is best enjoyed with chopsticks, not with spoons and forks or with hand as Indians do. And, there is a way to hold the sticks and pick the food and shove it into the mouth. More important is the etiquette of eating with chopsticks that varies from country to country in south-east Asia and one can easily identify a person's nationality from the way he/she handles the chopsticks to resting them in the bowl or plate.

In other words, chopsticks are not just twin tools to eat Chinese food but a whole lot of tradition, culture and belief are attached to them. It is doubtful whether any delegate to the parliament has taken Bo's view seriously. Off and on, this issue crops up at environmental conferences where chopsticks' use is a topic to waggle. In 2006, a five per cent tax was imposed on all disposable chopsticks and wooden flooring to raise awareness among the people about the value of trees to humankind. Predictably, it has had little long-term effect on the Chinese.

If the Chinese government wants to discourage the use of chopsticks, for argument sake, the alternatives are: Either reuse wooden chopsticks as many times as possible maintaining them hygienically; carry a personal set when dining out, as Bo has suggested; adopt Western style of eating using forks, spoons and knives. Again, excessive use of disposable plastic cutlery by over a billion people can pose serious environmental problem in a country that is gasping for fresh air and oxygen because of heavy air pollution. Metallic cutlery option is ruled out due to its high cost. Use of hands is the most natural way of eating without polluting air, land and surroundings.

That is Indian style, eminently suitable for our food and eating habits, though not all appreciate the advantages. If the Chinese have to give up chopsticks for the sake of saving forests, they have to mentally and physically prepare for another cultural revolution. First, they have to accept the fact that chopping woods for food-eating sticks is no good for the environment in the long term. Second, people have to be re-educated in eating their food in Western way.

Third, world famous Chinese cuisine may lose some of its appeal � as well as taste -- without chopsticks. Fourth, traditionalists may scoff at the idea of opening the food front to imperialists. Fifth, a culinary war may break out between protagonists of chopsticks and forks and knives with each side throwing down the gauntlet to prove the merits of their respective food-eating tools at dinner tables.

It will be a messy affair, should any such thing happen. Notwithstanding the banter, Chinese and their government should give a serious thought to the impact of chopsticks on the global forest wealth without chopping the traditional and customary use of the two sticks. The food for thought is to devise a pair of reusable chopsticks.

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