The ethics that guide your everyday life shouldn’t go on holiday when you do. Photo / Getty Images
After wrapping up a film shoot in Oslo, documentary director and producer Dagna Gallinger decided to take herself out for a dinner. Her venue of choice was an intimate restaurant, known for its tasting menus
highlighting Nordic ingredients.
“Sitting at the bar, it felt romantic and freeing,” she recalls of the candlelit meal for one. But when a dish of minke whale was set down in front of her, Gallinger was faced with a difficult decision.
“I had no idea whether Norway’s whaling practices were above board, or how large-scale commercial whaling affects other species,” she says. It wasn’t just the environmental concerns that gave her pause — it was something more visceral.
“What business do I have eating a beautiful, majestic animal of that size?” she wondered. But saying “no” wasn’t the obvious answer. “It’s problematic when people start policing cultural practices around what animals to eat,” she says.
When it comes to moral quandaries, eating out as a traveller is the perfect storm. Food is where value systems collide and clash, forcing us to determine what matters most: Is it preserving the environment? Protecting animal rights? Or is it respecting local people and traditional customs?
Before you can even begin to answer that question, you’ll need to know exactly what’s on the table by doing your research — and regional delicacies that you might encounter on your trip are a good place to start. While part of the fun and adventure of travel is being open to new culinary experiences, delicacies are often considered such because they’re rare or require special conditions to be grown or harvested. Unfortunately, that also means there’s a higher likelihood their production is harmful to local people or the environment, with the list of endangered-species-served-as-a-local-speciality being a long one: iguanas in Central America; beluga sturgeon caviar in Iran; and bluefin tuna at the sushi stalls beside Tokyo’s famed fish market are just a few.
A much closer-to-home example is whitebait. Marketed to tourists, it’s featured on menus across the country in everything from fritters to pizza. Yet, according to recent modelling, four of six whitebait species are at risk of extinction by 2050 — something your average tourist would be oblivious to. It’s one thing if the locals are eating it — but what if each of the five million tourists entering New Zealand annually suddenly decides they must try whitebait?
By ordering a dish, you’re creating more demand for it. That’s been the case in Iceland, where hundreds of minke and fin whales are killed every year to cater to tourists seeking a cultural experience.
There’s just one problem with that scenario: “In Iceland, whale isn’t a cultural thing to eat, but [tourists] assume that it is,” says Georgette Leah Burns, an environmental anthropologist from Griffith University whose research has focused on the collision between whale-watching and whale-eating in Nordic countries.
Just as critical as determining what you feel comfortable eating is figuring out how you can say “no thanks” without offending your hosts. Canadian traveller Ken Marshall experienced this first-hand when he visited a high-end restaurant in Taiwan for his birthday. When a bowl of shark fin soup was served, he sent it back to the kitchen — and it was immediately clear his table had upset the restaurant’s staff.
“They were walking on eggshells with us,” he says, telling me that more than a decade later, he still feels awkward about it. “We felt kind of bad, even though it would have been supporting an inhumane practice to eat it.”
Personally, I’m of the persuasion that the ethics that guide your everyday life shouldn’t go on holiday when you do. As a vegetarian for nearly 20 years, I’ve found that telling my hosts I don’t eat meat and then being open to questions allows for cross-cultural exchange — provided that both parties approach the conversation in a judgment-free manner. On holiday last year, I had lunch with a bison rancher, who told me he’d never met a vegetarian before. The conversation, for both of us, was fascinating.
To me, this is the most important aspect of eating ethically while overseas — the willingness to be open and to question one’s own assumptions and ethnocentrism.
When I asked my Facebook friends about their own ethical eating dilemmas, I was surprised when the comments focused on foods not commonly eaten in Western cultures, such as dog and cuy (guinea pig). The consensus seemed to be that it was “wrong” to eat these meats. A friend who is a registered dietician specialising in Asian foods sent me a private message expressing concern. “The racism is beginning to show,” she said. She was right.
In the end, being open to a new cultural experience was what guided Gallinger’s decision in Oslo. “My number one rule of eating is to follow the host’s cues,” she says. So, after being assured the whale wasn’t endangered, she dug in. As for the whale? “It was tender and delicious,” she says.