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China pays too high a price for food waste

August 8, 2022 GMT

A growing world population has combined with climate change to increase awareness of food security. The global agricultural system is under pressure, but its effects are spread unevenly.

For some poor nations it is already an existential threat of starvation and malnutrition from season to season, exacerbated at present by the pandemic, recent floods and disruption of supply chains and inflation caused by the Ukraine war.

The science of improving crop yields and nutritional quality has already staved off a wider crisis. But the hard yards lie ahead.

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China, a leader and biggest stakeholder in improving grain yields, is an example, amplified by a recent commentary in the Economic Daily. A 1 per cent rise in this year’s grain harvest from last year’s record level came at huge cost to governments and farmers.


“It is becoming more difficult to increase output,” the commentary said. It has reached the point where reducing loss and waste equates to lifting production.

Two years ago this month, President Xi Jinping declared war on food waste, an initiative that became known as the “clean plate” campaign. An official measure at that time showed China was wasting more than 35 million tonnes of grain each year during storing, transport and processing.

That is not to mention an often-quoted value of the food that goes to waste on Chinese tables each year ” 200 billion yuan (HK$232 billion).

Xi’s description of food waste as “shocking” is a reminder of the Mao Zedong era when Chinese leaders, prompted by natural and man-made disasters, encouraged people to store food amid widespread hunger and starvation.

But the most recent campaign follows years of bumper harvests. State media now rightly call food loss and waste in China astonishing, given the challenges of limited arable land and water resources. It cannot be reconciled with the goal of self-sufficiency.

The commentary followed a meeting of top planners to discuss a special operation against food waste in companies, schools, restaurants and households. A draft law on safeguarding grain security has moved up Beijing’s agenda this year.

The campaign is not just an invocation of the proverb “waste not, want not” on a global scale. Food security is paramount to global peace and security.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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