China’s President Xi Jinping last week called on his country’s citizens to drastically cut down on food waste in a new initiative called the ‘Clean Plates Campaign’. The push came as the Covid-19 pandemic, devastating floods and worsening relations with major international partners have raised fears about food shortage in the world’s most populous country.
Restaurants, catering associations and even the military have swiftly responded to the President’s appeal by introducing new measures.
Xi announced the campaign, promising to strengthen legislation and other mechanisms in support, calling the problem of food waste in the country “shocking and distressing”. Studies in recent years show that China produces around 17-18 million tonnes of food waste annually. Just as a matter of comparison, the United States, the global leader in food waste, throws away approximately 40 million tonnes of food a year.
Following Xi’s announcement, the State-run media ran “exposes” on restaurant customers ordering more than they could eat, as well as named and shamed a growing number of shows on China’s popular social media platforms with people live-streaming themselves eating large quantities and varieties of food, saying this was promoting a culture of extravagance.
The compliance has been swift. A few streaming platforms pledged to crack down on such content, while the Wuhan Catering Industry Association urged restaurants in the city to devise an“N-1” system — the number of dishes served to a group of customers in a restaurant must be at least one less than the number of people in the group. Several restaurants around the country announced their own measures in support of the campaign, including the introduction of “waste prevention supervisors” –staff members who would help customers order just enough food to ensure there’s no wasting.
On Thursday, the PLA Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s People’s Liberation Army, reported that the military was introducing new high-tech, high-efficiency equipment and processes — including robot cooks — to streamline cooking and cut down on wastage of food and other resources.
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Apart from the N-1 system that has generated some criticism, one restaurant in Changsha city had to apologise and backtrack following a torrent of online abuse for its decision to weigh customers before serving them. It said the weight data would be fed into an app which would then recommend the amount of food a customer should be served.
China has bad memories of food regulation. Between 1958 and 1962, during his ‘Great Leap Forward’, Chairman Mao had dictated strict rules regarding what farmers could sow, and imposed food rationing. Millions of people are estimated to have starved to death.
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According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, food prices in the country are 10% higher this July compared to last year. The disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic in international trade has had a severe impact on China’s economy and cut off many of the supply chains through which it procured various kinds of food items.
China’s worsening relations with countries in its own neighbourhood, and also with the US and Australia — two major sources of food imports — have added to food security concerns. To make matters worse, the recent floods across large swathes of southern China have laid to waste farms and destroyed tonnes of produce. Parts of the country have also had to deal with locust swarms destroying crops.
The State media, however, has dismissed suggestions that China is facing a crisis of food shortage.
In 2013, soon after Xi became President, the Chinese government had announced a similarly named “Clean your plates” campaign to reduce food waste. However, that campaign was focused more on ensuring that government officials followed austerity and cut down on extravagant feasts and receptions. According to China’s Commerce Ministry, these measures had resulted in a fall of sales of luxury food items by almost half in 2013 compared to the previous year.
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