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Fighting food waste in China: Local efforts, global effects

29 September 2020

Food production must double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing population. Yet about one third of the food already being produced globally is either lost or wasted every year.

29 September, the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, represents an opportunity to reflect on the fundamental role that sustainable food production and consumption (SDG 12) plays in promoting food security (SDG 2) and sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems (SDG 15).

Naturally, this degree of food loss and wastage has significant impacts around the world. According to recent estimates, the total economic cost of food waste amounts to US$750 million per year.  Food loss and waste are considered to be responsible for about eight per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly 30 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is currently occupied with producing food that is ultimately never consumed. But reducing food loss and waste is not just an economic and environmental concern: there is a pressing moral imperative as well. Currently, about 690 million people in the world are going hungry – and it would take less than 25 per cent of the food being wasted every year to feed them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only further aggravated the situation. The disruptions in supply chains caused by lockdowns and transport restrictions have resulted in significant increases in food loss and waste, especially that of perishable agricultural produce, such as fruits and vegetables, fish, meat and dairy products. Moreover, the closure of much of the catering and food service industry, along with schools, has also resulted in a loss of markets for producers, making the situation even more challenging.

Food waste and food security in China

China is not exempted from this global phenomenon. More than 35 million tonnes of food – six per cent of China’s total food production – are lost or wasted in China annually, enough to feed 30 to 50 million people. About half of it – between 17 and 18 million tonnes annually – is wasted at the last stage of the supply chain: at retail or consumption.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently launched a “Clean Plate” campaign targeting food waste, which, among other goals, seeks to remind everyone that “we should still maintain a sense of crisis about food security.” President Xi’s reference to food security is no coincidence. Food security has in fact always been an important strategic objective of China’s policy. Nevertheless, recent events such as mass flooding across the country that severely damaged the summer harvest – on top of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – may have understandably raised the food sector’s level of alarm.

While, in my view, China’s current level of food security does not warrant apprehension (China has sufficient food reserves to meet its internal demand for at least one year), renewed efforts to prevent and reduce food loss and waste would nevertheless generate several economic and environmental benefits that will eventually benefit the entire Chinese society. Locally speaking, reducing food loss and waste would reduce operating costs, and thus – ultimately – prices paid by consumers, and would also reduce the pressure on China’s limited land and water resources to produce food that is ultimately not consumed. From a global perspective, China is home to 20 per cent of the world’s population but only seven per cent of the world’s arable land. By cutting food loss and waste and promoting responsible and sustainable production and consumption, China can significantly contribute to the global battles against poverty, hunger and climate change.

What can be done to reduce food loss and waste?

Food is lost or wasted at each stage of the food supply chain. Mitigation measures would thus need to target each stage of the supply chain.

For instance, promoting the adoption of mechanized agriculture and more efficient farm machinery to ensure that crops are harvested efficiently may reduce food loss during the production (harvesting) phase. Increasing the number, capacity and functionality of storage facilities could help reduce food loss during the storage phase. Improved road connections and a more efficient logistics system could reduce food loss during distribution. Digitalization can improve overall efficiency along the entire value chain. IFAD-supported initiatives have already provided financial resources to construct feeder roads and improve road connectivity, build storage facilities, and improve the overall efficiency of agricultural value chains throughout China, thus directly or indirectly contributing to reducing the country’s food loss and improving its food security.

However, as in many other growing economies and increasingly urbanizing societies, more and more food is being wasted towards the end of China’s food supply chain, particularly at consumption. Implementing legislative and regulatory measures that discourage food waste is necessary to combat this, and the Government of China has already taken several actions in that regard. However, to really reduce food waste, a change in people’s customs and cultural attitudes is needed. In this regard, initiatives such as President Xi’s recent “Clean Plate” campaign can indeed contribute to changing people’s attitudes towards food consumption and waste.