35 million tonnes of food in China is wasted each year, with over half of it attributing to the dumping of excess food upon consumption. The Chinese government has been working hard to combat this growing environmental problem, and so far, they have come up with quite some creative policies. So, what is the current state of food waste in China and how effective are its anti-food waste policies and law?
What is Food Waste?
Food waste refers to food that is intended for human consumption that is lost anywhere across the supply chain, from farm stage to harvest to households. Globally, about one third of global food supplies are wasted, or 2.5 billion tonnes, every year, while more than 800 million people face hunger and food insecurity. The global food demand not only has a huge impact on the use of land, natural resources, and biodiversity, food waste also accounts for a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and generates 8% of greenhouse gases annually – when food decomposes in landfills, it releases a potent greenhouse gas called methane. While countries such as the United States and Australia are some of the world’s biggest culprits of food waste, the situation in China should not be swept under the rug either.
Causes of Food Waste in China
More than 35 million tonnes of food – equivalent to about 6% of the country’s total food production – are lost or wasted in China annually, an amount which is enough to feed 30 to 50 million people, according to an investigation conducted by the Institute of Geographic and National Resources Research and the World Wide Fund for Nature. About half of that food waste – between 17 and 18 million tonnes annually – is wasted at the final stage of the supply chain: at retail or consumption, meaning that people are literally throwing ready-made and fully-cooked food.
It is part of Chinese culture that when eating out, hosts traditionally order more food rather than less to show hospitality to their guests. The more food left uneaten, the more hospitable the host seems. An investigation conducted in 2018 estimated that the amount of food wasted in Chinese cities at 93 grams per person per meal, which is around 12% of food that was served. And for large banquets, the situation is even more severe. More than one-third of the food is simply dumped.
Other than these deeply-rooted traditions, there are also emerging new trends leading to excess food waste. “Mukbang” is a social media phenomenon that began in South Korea and became increasingly popular and profitable in China as well. Media personalities and social media influencers livestream videos of themselves binge-eating, and if they can manage to force a certain amount of food into their stomachs, they are crowned “big stomach kings”. Many video bloggers are gaining fame and support from their fans through these types of video content and exposure, and attracting even more into following this wasteful trend. As a result, significantly more quantities of food are being left uneaten or even regurgitated, leading to excess food waste.
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The Clean Plate Campaign
In August 2020, the Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a “Clean Plate” campaign, which aims to stop people from wasting food and remind Chinese residents that they “should still maintain a sense of crisis about food security”. It is unsurprising, considering how food security has always been an important strategic objective of China’s national policy and how its food supply has been greatly disturbed back in 2020: mass flash floods damaging the summer harvest (which also left dozens dead), its ongoing trade war with the US leading to a great decline of the US-imported food, and the COVID-19 pandemic limiting the amount of imported food from across the globe. Even though the food supply of China is relatively steady in recent years in which China has managed to produce enough food to reach a certain level of food security, an estimate suggests China may still face a food shortage of about 130 million tons by 2025 as its domestic farming population continues to shrink, possibly due to more people moving into urban areas.
Unfortunately, there’s been no evidence that this campaign had any real impact on reducing national food waste in China. The campaign only encouraged people to stop wasting food, but it lacked concrete control or regulation. Thus, the government later launched a new policy: the anti-food waste law.
China Food Waste Law
In April 2021, Chinese lawmakers voted to adopt an anti-food waste law at a session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee.
The law, aimed at safeguarding the country’s food security, answers President Xi’s calls for greater awareness regarding food security and targets primarily restaurants, which are the biggest source of food waste in China.
First, excessive leftovers are banned to stop hosts from extravagantly ordering food to impress their guests. Restaurants have the right to charge an extra fee to any patron who leaves excessive quantities of uneaten food. Restaurants can choose their own charging rates, but these must be clearly displayed to consumers.
Second, catering service providers are required to remind customers of food frugality duties. Restaurants found guilty of inducing or misleading behaviours may be fined up to 10,000 yuan (about USD$1,580). Restaurants that consistently waste large quantities of food may also be fined up to 50,000 yuan (USD$7,900).
Third, online bloggers are banned from live streaming binge-eating and competitive eating. Anyone who distributes such contents may face a fine of up to 100,000 yuan (USD$15,800), and media outlets may even be forced to shut down if their violations are deemed severe.
These are certainly never-seen-before policies, since they exert great control over people’s behaviour and can even be considered to be intrusive. And since they were only adopted a few months ago, the effectiveness of such special policies has yet to be seen.
However, adopting stricter food waste policies and regulations not only improve food security in China in the long run, but could also help contribute to the country’s efforts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and achieve its overarching goal of carbon neutrality by 2060.