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Food Security: Curbing Food Waste and China’s “Clean Plate Campaign”

Homemade Chongqing hot pot © Jonathan Lin from Singapore, xinjiapore / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The debate over food security is a central one in the current social and political international discourse, especially in light of its close links with issues such as climate change, the wealth gap, rising urbanization, and population growth. Governments, NGOs, companies, and common people of every world country are all involved and called upon to reflect on this. As Si and Scott (2019) state, “our contemporary food system is under great pressure and is not sustainable socially, economically, or environmentally”. As stressed in the United Nations official website, “food insecurity was already on the rise” before the pandemic occurred, but COVID-19 represents an additional challenge to food system management (United Nations, 2021). Goal number 2 and 12 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), respectively zero hunger and responsible consumption and production, complement each other and attempt to tackle food management-related issues. SDG 2 is aimed at fighting hunger, ensuring food security all over the world, and promoting sustainable means of food production, while SDG 12 “seeks to halve global food waste at retail and consumer levels, as well as to reduce food loss during production and supply” (Think.Eat.Save, 2021).

Responsible food consumption and food waste will be the focus of this article. First, I will offer a brief overview of the food security situation around the world. Then, the perspective will narrow on the scourge of food waste and on China’s effort to tackle this issue through the “Clean Plate Campaign” and the recently approved laws and regulations.

World Food Situation in Figures

In 2017, the number of undernourished people around the world was higher than in 2015 and “current estimates are that nearly 690 million people are hungry, or 8.9 percent of the world population” (FAO database, 2021). South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa represent the most affected areas. At the same time, in other regions of the world, especially in developing countries, food is over-produced and over-consumed. A paradox emerges: there are 690 million undernourished people in the world, while in 2016, “more than 1.9 billion adults aged 18 years and older were overweight” and “of these over 650 million adults were obese” (WHO, 2020). Moreover, data published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that every year around 1/3 of the food around the world, amounting to 1.3 billion tons, is lost or wasted (FAO, 2015). The term food wastage encompasses both the food wasted during the production, namely food loss, and the food thrown away during the distribution and consumption processes, namely food waste. Food wastage depends on family income and size, gender, socio-cultural factors, and much more. While in low-income countries the most critical problem is food loss, in middle or high-income countries, food is wasted mostly in the downstream phase, during consumption.

The UN Agenda 2030’s SDG 2 and SDG 12 have been established to cope with the above-mentioned issues. In order to implement these goals properly, governments are required to enforce sustainable practices and work jointly with other actors “through the agricultural value chain” (United Nations, 2021). In the case of food waste, one of the main challenges is to find a compromise between production and consumption, by pushing people to adopt sustainable habits and responsible behaviours. Common citizens play a major role in containing food waste. A major contribution of the people can make the difference and that’s why governments are launching campaigns and initiatives to raise awareness on the matter.

Food Waste in China and the “Clean Plate Campaign”

Given the complexity of the Chinese context in both size and social stratification, the Chinese government has to cope with different overlapping issues related to food management. China’s recent economic growth and development contributed to reducing the number of undernourished people. In November 2020, “China has removed the last remaining counties from a list of poor regions” (Reuters, 2020) and the government declared the eradication of poverty: 750 million people have been let out of poverty in less than thirty years, and this clearly had a relevant impact on the world trends in this matter. However, along with China’s development and urban living’s growth, food wastage has also increased: “the country faces massive food waste problems at the consumer stage” (Mirosa et al., 2018) and “at least 32 billion USD worth of food is thrown away annually” (Si et al., 2019), amounting to 18 billion kg of food. Moreover, “experts cautioned that with the improvement of people's living standards, meat consumption would continue to increase” and on this matter China mostly depends on other countries like the US, with which China has rising tensions (CGTN, 2020). Climate change also poses a challenge for food production: last year, in some southern provinces, “heavy rains have caused massive flooding that has wiped away billions of dollars of value” (The Diplomat, 2020). According to CGTN (2020), these floods impacted food production and supply was very limited. However, it is necessary to look at the future and to prevent future food-management crises: sparing food and avoiding waste recently became imperative.

In view of the above, in August of last year, President Xi “called for resolute efforts to promote thrift and combat food waste.” (China Daily, 2020). According to Xinhua, Xi Jinping described food waste in China as chumu jingxin (触目惊心) and ling ren tongxin (令人痛心), respectively translated to “shocking” and “distressing” (Xinhua, 2020). In 2013, at the beginning of his mandate, he had already warned against his country’s food waste, which was associated with overwhelming data. Last year, he stressed once again the need to tackle this issue, launching a new initiative, nicknamed “Clean Plate Campaign 2.0” by Global Times (Global Times, 2020). This initiative follows a first campaign, launched in 2013, that “was aimed at putting an end to officials' extravagant feasts and receptions” (Global Times, 2020). On the other hand, “the 2.0 version calls for the public to stop wasting food” (Global Times, 2020). The first formal initiative against food waste under the name of “Clean your plate” had been launched on Weibo by a non-governmental organization (Mirosa et al., 2018), while this time the official call emanated directly from the government.

The name of the campaign speaks for itself: it is framed as a joint effort between people and restaurant owners in order to avoid an enormous quantity of food being wasted every day. Official institutions, such as the China General Chamber of Commerce, the China Cuisine Association and the China Hotel Association, backed up Xi’s words, firmly stating to “promote thrift”. (China Daily, 2020). The Wuhan Catering Association recommended that diners use the “N-1 mode”, i.e., “ordering dishes as though there was one fewer person in the group” (China Daily, 2020) and, commonly, “restaurants across the nation are dishing out “half-servings” in line with the drive” (Washington Post, 2020).

More importantly, on April 29th this year, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress approved a regulation which formalizes the fight against food waste heralded by the “Clean Plate Campaign”. Thanks to this law, not only restaurants’ owners can “charge diners an extra fee if they leave excessive amounts of food uneaten”, but they can also be faced with sanctions if they push consumers to order excessive quantities of food (Global Times, 2021). The fine can be up to 10,000 yuan, amounting to 1,540 US dollars (China Daily, 2021). Moreover, “online bloggers will be banned from live streaming binge eating” and can face sanctions if promoting lavish consumption behaviours (Xinhua, 2021). The law is indicative of the Chinese government’s clear and resolute stand to tackle food waste and endorses the promotion of a healthier and greener lifestyle in the country.

As stressed by Marchisio (2020), the fight against food waste in China produces both local and global benefits. At the local level, people’s parsimony and responsible consumption behaviours release the pressure on the resources of the territory, already limited and recently weakened by floods. At the global level, China, given its large population and the massive efforts described above, can play a relevant role in the global fight against food waste: the PRC, “by cutting food loss and waste and promoting responsible and sustainable production and consumption, […] can significantly contribute to the global battles against poverty, hunger and climate change” (Marchisio, 2020).

Maria Elena Sassaroli is a master’s double degree student in International Relations at University of Turin and Beijing Foreign Studies University, currently interning at the Italian Consulate in Adelaide. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and culture at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and spent some time in China as an exchange student at Suzhou University and Chengdu’s Sichuan University. She is passionate about China-India relations, China-EU relations, and China’s domestic policy. You can find her on Instagram as @mariaelenastone or on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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