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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Tackling China's food wastage problem through Operation Clean Plate

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on August 17, 2020 and can be accessed here.

Restaurants in China are grappling with how to reduce waste and have resorted to limiting the number of dishes groups are allowed to order. In restaurants in many Chinese provinces like Hubei, Xinyang, Henan, Xianning, if you are in a group of 10 people, you can only order nine dishes. This “n-1” principle has invited praise and ire on the Chinese restaurant. Other establishments across the country are also trying to tackle the problem innovatively. One restaurant in Hunnan put out two weighing scales to remind its patrons to order according to their waistlines - but soon replaced it with an apology after online furor over fat-shaming.

All of this is in response to Chairman XI Jinping’s remarks last week when he said that food wastage in China was “shocking and distressing.” This is not the first the Chinese Premier has raised this problem. Back in 2013, he tapped into an online trend called “Operation Clean Plate” (光盘行动 guāng pán xíngdòng) which urged people not to waste food. The movement was soon adopted by various actors within the Chinese government and fed into the anti-corruption movement, targeting officials’ lavish feasts, and parties. This time around, it is not just restaurants that are becoming conscious about food wastage but also bloggers. Chibo, a form of online entertainment where bloggers eat enormous amounts of food, is also being criticized for “promoting gluttony” and has companies like Bytedance and Douyu promising to take action.

Most of the Chinese food waste at the consumer end happens in restaurants or canteens. It is a cultural norm for hosts to order more food that guests can consume as a way to extend hospitality. On the other hand, a long history of food shortages has led to frugality being equated with being tight-fistedness. Decades of double-digit growth have meant that days of food scarcity are over, but food security remains an important issue in China, particularly against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

China does not have to worry about feeding its 1.2 billion people. It is about 97% self-sufficient in its main cereals, and therefore the problem is not from the supply-side. In an episode on the China Eats podcast, Prof. Zhong Hangzhou pointed out that the pandemic showed how the more vulnerable groups would find it difficult to access food or afford it. Further, food wastage is not only a concern of food security, but also of the environment: water pollution, deforestation, and the resulting carbon footprint worsen already scarce resources. It also accounts for 56% of municipal solid waste in the country.

A recent study by the Food Sustainability Initiative shows that India and China have very similar scores on food loss and wastage. In India, where 40% of all produce is wasted, the problem is more infrastructural than consumer-based. Lack of adequate cold-storage options leads to the annual waste of 16% of all fruits and vegetables and 10% of oilseeds, pulses, and seeds harvested.

The success of the redux of Operation Clean Plate depends on local authorities’ momentum. On the other hand, how this will distort restaurants’ behavior, and people’s choices will be interesting to follow.

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