Targeting Food waste in China: Clean Plate Campaign

by | November 9, 2020

Targeting Food waste in China: Clean Plate Campaign

November 9, 2020

According to media and government reports, roughly 17-18 million tonnes of food was wasted in 2019 in China. Food waste has been gaining attention globally as businesses and consumers seek to optimize the efficiency of the supply chain. Unlike food loss, which happens during the movement of food from farm to table and is often due to transportation or storage issues, food waste is preventable and comes solely from lack of consumption.

In August 2020, the Chinese government officially launched their “Clean Plate Campaign” to battle food waste in China. The campaign urges diners to only order the food they can consume and avoid food waste when possible. The campaign has been promoted on state media channels and was picked up by users of social media apps Douyin (TikTok) and Weibo. Through this campaign, China hopes to change the culture around eating out and decrease the amount of food being sent to landfills each year.

A similar campaign called “Operation Empty Plate,” was previously launched in 2013 to target the extravagant feasts and reception held by officials. This new campaign shifts the focus from bureaucrats to include all citizens that dine-out and puts special emphasis on the actions that food-service businesses should take to avoid waste.

This targeting of restaurants and food-service businesses has the potential to make a significant difference when confronting the food waste challenge. In a survey led by a team of five local experts in food supply chain sustainability, 57% of survey respondents operating in the food-service sector admitted that they did not consider food waste at all when running their business. The campaign signifies China’s commitment to solving unique sustainability problems through targeted policy implementation.

Impact of food waste

Globally, one-third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted each year. The impact from the sheer level of food waste is felt economically, environmentally, and politically. Economically, because farmers and consumers in effect pay for the waste. Middlemen, processors, brands, and retailers can protect their margins more effectively, and thus the burden is felt by the producers and end-users. Environmentally, as, for every unit of food wasted, China’s precious water resources are wasted, and unnecessary chemicals, such as pesticides are used. Politically, as China now relies extensively on foreign countries to supply the food stuffs required to satisfy local demand, and its cities’ landfills are unable to keep up.

Given these issues and the expectation that 300 million more people will join the urban economy, it is imperative that the drivers of food waste are addressed. Otherwise, with greater affluence and higher individual consumption, the pressure on China’s food and agriculture industries to be able to bring to market safe and affordable foods will continue to be compromised.

Why is so much food wasted in China?

Drivers of food waste consist of technological, social, and institutional challenges. Technological challenges describe the packaging and storage of food that is bought and sold. For take-away food, technological issues in the packaging and temperature control of food can result in increased waste. For example, someone might throw away take-away food if it has gotten too cold, thus wasting it. Social issues contributing to food waste describe the social norms around food consumption that can contribute to increased waste. In China, it is quite common to attend communal, “family-style” meals where many, almost too much, plates are ordered and shared between a group. This norm could contribute to food waste. Lastly, institutional drivers of food waste refer to the policies of businesses involved in the food-service industry. The clean plate campaign currently addresses both social and institutional issues that are contributing to food waste.

 Want to know more about how waste in China is managed, read our QRT!

Reasons to Counter Food Waste

Food waste is an easier problem to solve compared to food loss. As food waste happens after the entire supply chain is managed properly there is no need for infrastructure development or business model adjustment to target the problem. Furthermore, solving food waste in China could help to counter the inefficiency, risk, waste, and expense of the overall food supply chain.

Increasing amounts of food waste together with growing population places tremendous pressure on the government to continue feeding a growing population. If there is less waste, there is less demand for a large supply of food items that may exist in limited quantity.

73% of China’s food waste ends up in landfills which can produce methane and GHG, harmful and flammable substances. If GHG were included in the global emissions totals, China would rank 3rd highest for the harmful gases that result when food decomposes in a waste facility.

When thinking about food waste, it is important to remember that the waste of food is only the beginning. For each crop that is produced, there is water and energy cost that must be factored into the waste calculation. Because the waste of food happens at the end of the lifecycle, there have already been transport and growing costs that have been spent to create the end product. Greater efficiency could better utilize all the resources required for food production.

Waste on all sides of the supply chain increases operating cost and as a result, prices for the product increases with consumers shouldering the cost.


Food Shortage on the Horizon in China?

While China’s strong agricultural central regions do not gain as much attention as its innovative and technology focused coastal regions, they are strong supporters of the economy. Furthermore, they are responsible for keeping goods priced reasonably and increasing the quality of life of many lower and middle class Chinese. Although China’s agricultural output is the largest in the world, only 10% of China’s land is suitable for growing crops. This figure gets increasingly small as climate change, specifically desertification, changes the landscape. Because of this, farmers often adopt highly intensive cultivation and pesticide practices that continuously affect the fertility of the available land, which in turn, reduces agricultural productivity.

International media has noted when reporting on the Clean Plate Campaign that China could be facing a food shortage after a year of natural disasters and COVID-19 induced scrutiny on food safety of imported products. China has been fighting against a pending agricultural crisis through decades of policies designed to purchase food stores meant to help keep grain prices affordable and through environmental policies aimed at reclaiming land to stimulate local farming.


Possible causes of government concern

In 2020, China faces two key problems that could be responsible for the increased government concern surrounding food waste. Now is a more important time than ever to combat the modern problem of food waste because of the following challenges:

Hog Industry

China’s hog industry has been heavily impacted by a series of African Swine viruses in 2019 and 2020 that led to death of an estimated 55% of the hog population in China. Pork prices have reached a record high in China and have impacted the CPI indicator, reflecting a high demand for pork locally. While importers hoped that this domestic problem could be an opportunity for them to gain market share, the COVID-19 crisis dramatically impacted the global supply chain and led to fear around products imported from high-risk countries.

To support the hog industry’s revival, China has already taken steps to increase the domestic safety measures in place and encourage higher standards regarding the raising of pigs. If there is not a way to control future outbreaks of African Swine fever or in order to increase the confidence and ease of importing affordable pork from abroad, it is likely that the price of pork domestically will continue to rise.

Corn Output

China is the second largest producer of Corn in the world. Despite this, China corn prices are at a 5-year high at 2,050 RMB per ton. This figure is 27% higher than the start of the year. The rise in corn prices, a crop critical in supporting the large domestic livestock industries, has raised concern of a potential food-supply gap. Reuters noted that experts have suggested that the upcoming season could show a 10% decrease in the domestic output due to potential labor disruptions caused by COVID-19 and the severe flooding that has destroyed many crops in Southern China.

The USDA noted that China was expected to hold roughly 65% of the world’s grain produced this year due to their program to purchase and store grains in case of a domestic food crisis. Although China can purchase grains from other countries to supplement the local output, the cost and various geopolitical issues impacting trade have made procurement of international supplies of grains a specific challenge for China.



Final Thoughts

China’s “Clean Plate Campaign” attempts to target potential drivers of food waste throughout the country and increase the overall efficiency and sustainability of food supply chains. While it will be tricky to implement, many businesses and cities have begun embracing the challenge and are eagerly advertising the campaign and its purpose to their citizens. Through encouraging both private businesses and citizens to embrace the campaign and keep food waste in mind, China hopes to see lower figures for food waste over the next few years.

 Want to know more about how waste in China is managed, read our QRT!


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