Responsible cooking & food vacations

Food is universal – no matter where you are, someone needs to rear or catch it, sell it for a living, and cook it in ways that often draw deeply on tradition. As a shared human global arena, food reflects on wider social issues – environmental, cultural and economic. Where does the price of a thing clash with the need for producers to earn a living? How do you balance wider market demands for a product with limited supplies? What if creating a particular food harms the environment, as with soya/beef and deforestation? Wherever you are in the world, whatever you eat provides food for thought.

People & Culture

Eating to live

Global capitalism's foregrounding of maximum profits over pretty much anything else can cause real hardship for many small producers, as larger international companies attempt to drive down the price they pay for a crop or product, while middle-men seek to take their cut too. And this happens in developed countries as well as the archetypical small farmer in a tropical country – witness the huge problems faced by many dairy farmers in the UK being offered less for their milk by supermarkets than it costs to produce. Being an ethical consumer demands being willing to pay a fair price guaranteeing a sustainable living for those who grow or catch something – which includes workers on a farm or boat, not just the owner. The Fair Trade organisation plays a high-profile in tackling global economic exploitation of producers in developing countries by offering certification of foods that tick the right boxes, but they are not the be-all and end-all of the matter. It is down to individuals to be prepared to stump up a fair price for something – especially when in many countries the amounts involved are not much by Western standards. For you to eat, farmers and fishing folk need to have enough too.

What you can do:
Buy direct from producers if you can, meaning more money goes direct to them. Don't be mean when it comes to buying produce or paying for a meal. And look for certification from organisations like Fair Trade where relevant.

A big appetite for small economies

Food production plays a vital role in sustaining local economies in many parts of the world, from small rural farms to fishing villages. Money earned from food sales to visitors can be crucial in allowing a farmer to continue growing their crops or a fishermen to pay for their boat. This in turn, helps maintains the very communities and their associated traditions and lifestyle whose distinctive appeal has tempted you to travel long distances to immerse yourself in a vibrant local culture. Wherever you are, eat like the locals do and show how interested you are in what they produce and how they use it. That way you sustain them as much as you sustain yourself.

What you can do
Live and eat as close to the local way as you can, and demonstrate your interest in and commitment to the way of life wherever you are. Which just happens to be the epitome of our cooking and food vacations.

Wildlife & environment

Whale and shark meat

A few countries still hunt whales for food, despite growing global condemnation. It’s a grey area in Greenland and Alaska, where traditional Inuit communities have practised whale hunting for centuries, and the numbers taken are small enough to be sustainable. Japan, Norway and Iceland, however are defying the global moratorium on commercial whaling and kill hundreds of whales each year. In Iceland, most whale meat ends up on the plates of tourists keen for a foodie novelty, who eat it after being duped into thinking it is somehow an age-old Icelandic tradition.

In China, shark fin soup has long been a delicacy and has increased in popularity in recent years, including in neighbouring Vietnam. This is devastating shark populations, and, in turn threatening whole marine ecosystems. Of the 100 million sharks killed by humans annually, about half are hunted to support the hunger for this wasteful foodstuff, often in a shockingly cruel manner. The sharks are usually killed for their fins alone, and are tossed back in water, where they are unable to swim and slowly die.

What you can do
You can strike an economic blow by disdaining the very idea of eating whale meat or shark fin soup, as well as boycotting restaurants that serve it. Spend your money instead on the growing number of excellent whale watching tours, and show there is a good way to make money from whales that doesn't involve killing them.


Traditionally, bushmeat is an important source of food for rural communities in Asia, the Americas and Africa, who may not be able to regularly afford to by farmed meat, or to travel long distances to market. But as most communities have moved away from traditional lifestyles, bushmeat is increasingly available in village markets, in cities, and in restaurants, and in many places it’s considered a delicacy, fuelling a large black market.

Whether or not consuming bushmeat is ethical depends greatly on where you are in the world. In West and Central Africa, for example, the hunting of wildlife for food is pushing some species - including chimpanzees and eastern lowland gorillas - towards extinction. Not only is it unethical and unsustainable, the preparation and consumption of bushmeat is also very dangerous, and can pass on HIV, Ebola, rabies and other diseases.

Southern Africa is a different story. It also serves up a lot of bushmeat, but you won't be eating elephants or lions, and although there is a market for illegally hunted meat, you’re unlikely to come across it as a tourist. You’ll more likely see antelope species such as kudu, antelope or springbok, which are effectively like an African version of venison and wild boar and can be more ethical to eat than lamb or pork.

What you can do
As a traveler, you can do your bit to help curb this unsustainable use of wildlife by avoiding bushmeat, unless you're sure that it comes from a sustainable and ethical source. Read more about eating bushmeat and game here.

Bird's nest soup

Edible bird’s nests are a Chinese delicacy said to be a panacea for every woe, from wrinkles to cancer. While rich in protein and amino acids, its miraculous qualities haven’t yet been scientifically proven. Tradition is a potent thing, though, with the value of white bird’s nests rocketing from £17 a kilo to £1,390 a kilo between 1950 and 2000.

Theoretically, harvesting swiftlet nests could be sustainable. Sabah in Malaysian Borneo has strict laws, so that licensed collectors can only harvest nests twice a year (early so birds have time to build another nest before laying their brood; and again after the chicks have fledged). It’s said to keep swiftlet populations stable – although it’s a difficult line to swallow when you consider the massive demand pushed by an increasing Chinese population and wealth.

But harvesting is death-defying work. Collectors clamber up shaky scaffolding to reach nests high up in the limestone caves of Southeast Asia. Sky-high prices and rising demand have also encouraged harvesters to collect far more nests than they should. Swiftlet farms are easier to manage sustainably, but they’re not without their problems. There hasn’t been any research on the effects of farming on the wild bird population, despite the number of swiftlet farms in Malaysia swelling from 1,000 in 2005 to 60,000 in 2015.

What you can do
Don’t buy bird’s nest products. Unless you’re eating it in a country like the USA, where strict food import rules apply, then you’re probably not going to find out where the bird’s nest was harvested. So if in doubt, just order the wonton – it’ll be tastier, too.

Responsible tourism tips

Behave with an awareness of the locals around you – they are getting on with their lives not on vacation. If you visit a restaurant or market as part of a group, for example, don't act in any way that might cause offence or upset others. You are there for a few hours but for the restaurant or market it is their daily break. Don't expect special treatment by asking for things not on the menu or complaining about a local dish just because it isn't to your taste. Responsible tourism acknowledges the character of a place – that's why you've come! Don't buy foodstuffs you know are unethical, such as whale meat in Iceland, Norway and Japan, or unsustainable seafood. Try to buy from small local producers/sellers at every opportunity – you'll get the freshest and best produce and also be putting valuable money direct into the hands of people who need it most.
Written by Norman Miller
Photo credits: [Page banner: Brooke Lark] [Italian farmers: josef.stuefer] [Bushmeat: Jasmine Halki]