Harvest ban on delicacy fails to stop sale in HK

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 January, 2004, 12:00am

Removal of fat choi moss is illegal on mainland, but big profits draw traders

A moss banned for sale on the mainland is still sold as a Lunar New Year's delicacy in Hong Kong markets, even though its harvest is causing erosion and the expansion of deserts on the mainland.

In Cantonese, the name of the moss species fat choi sounds like the phrase for 'getting rich'. The moss is harvested mainly in the semi-desert areas in the northwestern areas of the mainland including Gansu, Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

The dark, hair-like moss is protected on the mainland as an endangered species. But for hundreds of years it has been one of the most popular dishes on menus at Lunar New Year in Cantonese-speaking areas, as people believe that the food symbolises good luck and wealth. In terms of nutrition, the food is said to be good for the lungs.

But its popularity in China's prosperous southern cities is blighting large areas in the northwest. Lister Cheung Lai-ping, chief executive of the Conservancy Association, said: 'Armies of poor farmers flock to the region to dig the wild plant out of the soil. It makes the soil vulnerable to erosion, once the vegetation is lost.'

The digging had caused desert-like conditions to expand more than hundreds of millions of hectares, said conservation officials.

China has banned the removal and sale of the moss since 2000, but that has had a limited impact in stopping the trade.

'There are still many channels for smuggling fat choi out of the region to areas of huge demand,' Ms Cheung said.

She said the sale of the moss was still legal in Hong Kong, but fake fat choi - a vegetable lookalike mixed in with the real thing - had also flooded the market.

The avenues for smuggling, together with the high market price, makes the illicit sales difficult to stop. The moss sells for $480 per catty (670 grams), while top-quality samples can fetch twice that price.

'The selling price is incredibly high for farmers who are only earning perhaps $200 a year,' she said.

Some efforts are being made to halt the trade. An education campaign was launched by the Conservation Association years ago, and some companies have rejected fat choi for their annual Lunar New Year dinners. Some restaurants have pledged not to sell the moss and tried to use substitutes, but retailers and wholesalers are still selling it.

One dried-food retailer pointed out that it was still legal to import fat choi into Hong Kong, despite the harvest ban. But he declined to say which importer sold him the moss. 'We are in business, and are motivated by profit. If others sell it, why can't we? In fact, fat choi is only popular during the New Year and its sale volume is very limited,' he said.

The retailer said if the farmers in the region remained poor, little could be done to stop the trade.