Chinese President Xi Jinping has urged his country to take immediate actions to curb what he called its “shocking and distressing” food waste problem as the worst flooding along the Yangtze River in years threatens the country’s important rice crop.
In an instruction released last week, Xi urged the country to pay attention to the risks of food security, and highlighted the challenge the country faces as the coronavirus pandemic spurs concerns over tightening food supplies and surging prices.
Analysts who spoke to VOA say recent pressure on China’s food security is due to natural disasters at home and worsening relations with many of Beijing’s trade partners.
China’s food waste
A 2018 report by the China Academy of Science found China wasted up to 18 million tons of food served in four big cities in 2015 alone, enough to feed 30 to 50 million people annually.
The report said Chinese cities produce 25% of the world’s municipal solid waste, most of it food. Patrons of the country’s catering industry each wasted an average of 11.7 percent of their meal.
According to a 2015 estimate from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), China wastes up to 35 million tons of food per year. That’s nearly 6% of the country’s annual food production.
The FAO estimates that about one-third of all food produced gets lost or is wasted during production, transportation and consumption. However the situation is different in each country.
Who’s wasting food in China?
In Chinese society, people usually treat others to meals in order to make new friends or enhance established relationships, and serving expensive and rare food is considered a form of respect for guests. According to a 2015 study, a formal dinner typically includes 4 to 6 cold dishes and 8 to 10 hot dishes, served with soup and fruits.
Zhong Dajun, director of the Beijing Dajun Institute for Economic Observation, told VOA that the wasting of food has been increasing over the years as people gained more disposable income.
“I think compared to the general public, officials dining with public funds account for only a small proportion,” he said. “With strong spending power, Chinese people have to pay attention to frugality and saving food.”
Preparing or ordering more food than necessary has long been regarded as a symbol of hospitality in China. Zhu Qizhen, a professor at China Agricultural University, told the South China Morning Post that because of this tradition, “the amount of leftovers has become the standard for a sumptuous feast.”
Yet political commentator Heng Hei said one of the main problems with the country’s food waste problem is linked to the lavish excesses of the Chinese Communist Party.
“This level of food wasting has to do with CCP’s extravagant culture. Ordinary Chinese people don’t waste to that level,” he said.
In a survey by China’s state newspaper Beijing Youth Daily in 2013, a shocking 97.8% of respondents felt that Chinese officials were wasting public funds. Of those funds, 33.8% were used for official receptions, including extravagant dining.
Xi Jinping subsequently launched an anti-corruption campaign as a means to curb extreme levels of corruption. Yet analysts point out this is also an effective way to get rid of his political enemies. China also launched the “Clean Your Plate Campaign” in 2013, which aimed to “put an end to officials’ extravagant feasts and receptions, according to state media Global Times.
China’s leader Xi has long tied the country’s food security to national security. In a visit to the country’s largest soybean producer — Heilongjiang province — in 2018, Xi said "the rice bowl of the Chinese people, in any situation, must be firmly held in our own hands."
Yet 2020 has delivered a one-two punch to the world’s second largest economy.
The country is experiencing the worst flooding in more than two decades, destroying thousands of acres of farmland along the Yangtze River. With the nickname “Land of Rice and Fish,” the broader Yangtze River basin accounts for 70% of China’s rice production.
Given how much cropland was damaged by mid-July, Chinese brokerage firm Shenwan Hongyuan estimated that China could lose 5% of its rice production compared to last year.
China’s National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration issued an announcement on August 5, pointing out the country’s wheat harvest has fallen by nearly 1000 tons compared to 2019 levels.
According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, food prices in China climbed about 10% in July compared to a year ago, with the price of corn 20% higher compared to the same period last year. The prices for soybeans jumped by 30% compared to the end of last year.
Beijing has responded to the crisis by stabilizing supply from its strategic reserve. According to China Grain Reserves Group, Beijing has released 62.5 million tons of rice, 50 million tons of corn and over 760,000 tons of soybeans by the end of July, a level nearly double the volume released during the whole of 2019.
Meanwhile, China’s worsening relations with some of its major trade partners could create uncertainty for China’s food supply chain. For example, the country has been relying on imports from the U.S. to try to stabilize prices as well as fulfill its commitment to purchase U.S. agricultural products.
In the first six months of this year, China imported nearly 61 million tons of grain, a 21% jump from a year ago. Imports of corn, soybeans and wheat have also increased, according to data from Chinese customs.
Analysts caution that an overdependence on food imports could hurt Beijing’s strategic interest. Meanwhile, the continuing political tensions with Western countries could lead to trade barriers such as higher taxes, raising prices and further threatening the country’s food security.
Economist Zhong Dajun said China has to import as least 100 million tons of crop every year, and “it will be pretty troublesome for Beijing to increase the production by that amount domestically.”