How much is too much to leave on your plate? China may soon have to answer that question if Yuan Longping – the father of hybrid rice as he is known – gets his way.
Last week the revered 82 year-old scientist proposed making it a criminal offence to waste food.
“Our country has such a huge population and the arable land is very small if it is divided for each Chinese individual. For years we toiled to increase output … but after the food was increased, people wasted it,” Yuan told CCTV.
“Now I am proposing that the government makes people despise the waste of food and to treat it like a crime.”
When Yuan started his career some 60 years ago China struggled to feed itself (see WiC126).
Today – in cities anyway – food is plentiful and eminently affordable for most. Restaurants line the streets of many city districts centres and China’s ancient culinary culture has made a comeback.
But along with availability, so profligacy has risen too. China is now struggling to deal with the huge amount of kitchen waste it produces every day.
Beijing alone generates around 13,500 tonnes of kitchen slop daily, but only has the ability to process 800 tonnes usefully each day, according to a report in the China Daily. The problem is a nationwide one. For example, the city of Chongqing saw its kitchen waste rise 64% last year, as more citizens dined out but left food at the table on finishing their meals.
“Kitchen waste has become a primary pollution source and imposes serious risks to people’s health and the environment,” Ren Lianhai a waste management expert told the China Daily. Food now counts for as much as 70% of China’s non-industrial waste.
Traditionally kitchen waste has been fed to pigs but large scale recycling for hoggeries is problematic as pork often features in leftover meals. If it leaks into pigfeed, the risk is a porcine version of mad cow disease.
Similarly composting is also a challenge, explains Ren, because of high levels of oil and salt in Chinese food. Oil prevents oxygen getting into the food to break it down. The saltiness means that resulting compost could render land infertile.
So, with China about to go into a period of festive excess as the Lunar New Year approaches, state media is encouraging people to think twice before ordering another dish in a restaurant or scraping their leftovers into the bin.
In-mid January a group of young professionals called IN-33 also launched a campaign called “Finish Your Plate”. Headed up by an official from China’s Land Resources Department, the group has got 750 restaurants in Beijing to offer smaller portions to those who ask for them – since part of the problem in Chinese eateries is dishes designed for several to share. The group has also got millions of pledges online not to waste food.
“Even if we could just save 5% of what we waste that would feed four million people,” Xu Zhijun, the group’s founder told Youth.cn, the website of the Communist Party’s Youth League.
Minister of Commerce Chen Deming has also waded into the debate, speaking approvingly at a press conference this week about schemes launched by Beijing restaurants to reward diners with coupons if they finish all their food.
Wasteful banquets raise the issue of inequality too. Almost 130 million people in China still live below the official poverty line of roughly $1 a day. In stark contrast to the campaigns urging an end to wasteful behaviour, these families face a struggle to feed themselves adequately.
The gulf between the haves and have-nots was brought into stark relief this month by a powerful series of photos showing a banquet hall scraping plate after plate of half-eaten food into a bin. The final image in the series was that of a farmer from Gansu, China’s poorest province, who can only afford to eat meat about 10 times a year.
“Images like this should make us ashamed,” wrote one person on her Sina Weibo account. “Food is the difference between life and death. It should not be ordered simply because people can afford it. We must remember there are others that can’t.”
China is far from alone in wasting vast amounts of food. A recent report by the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimated that 30-50% of all food produced worldwide is wasted. Inefficient harvesting and logistics is the major contributing factor in the developing world.
But in developed countries consumers are more often to blame. For example, British households throw away almost $16 billion worth of food annually. Due to the requirements of UK supermarkets 30% of vegetables are also discarded because of size or appearance.
As Minette Marrin in the Sunday Times points out, these are figures “to startle anyone out of their statistics fatigue”.
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