China's food sticks set for chop as its forests suffer
Entrenched, ubiquitous: Consumption habits of the Chinese people will be difficult to change. Photo: AFP
It's a battle that has divided East and West for centuries: are chopsticks superior to the knife and fork?
Now the debate finally may be decided on environmental grounds.
With 1.4 billion people ploughing through 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks each year, China has admitted that its forests can no longer provide enough cutlery for its dinner tables.
''We must change our consumption habits and encourage people to carry their own tableware,'' Bo Guangxin, the chairman of Jilin Forestry Industry Group, told fellow delegates at the National People's Congress.
Pointing out that only 4000 chopsticks could be carved from a 20-year-old tree, he even went so far as to suggest that restaurants should offer metal knives and forks instead.
If Mr Bo's suggestion is widely adopted, it would be a dark moment in the chopstick's 4000-year history.
It was Da Yu, the founder of the Xia dynasty, who is said to have first used two sticks to eat his food in about 2100BC.
It was an invention born of urgency. In his rush to reach a flood zone, Da Yu did not want to wait for his meat in his wok to cool, instead seizing a pair of twigs and wolfing down his meal.
Chopsticks quickly became popular around Asia. Chinese chopsticks are longer than their Korean and Japanese counterparts in order to reach the communal dishes in the centre of the table. Koreans also often use metal chopsticks because of their love of the barbecue.
The fork is said to have been invented by the Romans, but did not become common in northern Europe until the 18th century.
Catherine de Medici is said to have taken the fork with her from Florence to France in the 16th century, along with many of her chefs, when she married Henry II, a moment that many Italians claim as the genesis of French cuisine.
Today, China is chopping down 20 million mature trees a year to feed its disposable chopstick habit, according to Mr Bo. Nor can China find enough wood in its own forests. It is now the world's largest importer of wood and even imports chopsticks from America.