President Xi has described the amount of food wasted in China as „shocking and depressing.”
Although the Asian power plant has seen a decline in population growth recently, food security remains a key issue. Andy Coyne explores what is behind China’s attempts to tackle food waste through its clean plate strategy.
Eyebrows may have been raised last year when Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a „green rebound” in the global economy ahead of the Covid-19 outbreak.
After all, China tends to top the list of the world’s biggest polluters, especially when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
While there may have been a road to Damascus for President Xi and his administration, there are also more pressing reasons for a non-altruistic way Beijing embraces sustainability.
And in the food sector, these reasons are inextricably linked to safety.
With a population of 1.4 billion, around 22% of the world’s population, China recognizes that it has to fight on multiple fronts to feed everyone.
One of these fronts is the Clean Plate campaign, which was announced last August.
The initiative is an attempt to reduce food waste after Xi described the amount wasted in the country as „shocking and depressing”. While this is a campaign aimed primarily at consumers and the food service market, there is an impact across the food industry.
Climate change is a major problem for China and its food supply. The mass floods in the south of the country devastated the rice and grain harvests last year. Urbanization is another big problem as more and more people move into cities and use catering establishments.
The culture of over-ordering food to impress guests is another major concern of the Chinese government. And the ongoing trade war with the United States is affecting a country that imports an estimated $ 75 billion in food annually.
But even after the announcement of the Clean Plate initiative, the Chinese government has not yet enacted a set of rules and regulations regarding food waste. Instead, it relies on food service operators and consumers to do the right thing.
To some extent, there is evidence that it appears to be working. For example, the Wuhan Catering Industry Association has urged restaurants in the city to limit the number of dishes served to guests. An earlier system called N-1 was introduced, whereby groups had to order one dish less than the number of guests.
Overall, the strategy seems to be an acknowledgment by the Chinese government that while they want to tackle food security, tackling food waste could be an easier win.
Michelle Huang, a consumer goods analyst at the Netherlands-based financial services group Rabobank in Shanghai, says, „More and more people have moved to the cities of China. There is less space for families, people in cities are likely to have more hectic lives and this leads to it to more and more consumers looking for convenience and grocery delivery.
„China’s food supply company is booming, but we’ve also seen an increase in food waste. At the same time, we have climate change and weather events affecting agricultural production. The last rice crop was damaged by floods. Food waste is on a more pressing agenda and action needs to be taken.”
Tao Zhang, co-founder of the Dao Foods International investment fund, which supports companies with meat alternatives in China, also understands the need for action, but has concerns about the clean plate campaign being intended for the short term.
„These [the Clean Plate campaign] is about China’s food security concerns. It should be taken as it helps, but it isn’t necessarily a long-term solution to the problem, „he says.
„Food waste should be treated more holistically. Short-term factors include the pandemic and its impact on the global supply chain, as well as last year’s floods that wiped out crops and contributed to increased food prices. China trade war.”
Zhang suggests that climate change and China’s lack of self-sufficiency in food production are central to the country’s food security concerns.
„It’s difficult to feed 22% of the world’s population if you’re not necessarily self-employed,” he says. „China still imports a lot of food – more than $ 75 billion – so the trade war with the US is of no help.”
With regard to clean plate, both Huang and Zhang suggest that the self-control inherent in the campaign brings about a tremendous cultural shift.
„The Chinese have a culture of supremacy to improve their economic status,” says Huang. „Restaurants could offer smaller servings. Or you could have different pricing strategies that charge customers a premium when they can’t finish all of the food ordered in buffet restaurants.
„I think in the end of the consumer it is some kind of education. When people have large gatherings, they have to order less than before and take the surplus home with them to take away.”
Zhang added, „If your diner’s plate is empty at the end of a meal, you’re not doing a good job. China’s government is aware of this cultural issue and is trying to address it. But food service providers are business people, so they want them People do it. ” order as many dishes as possible. „
For Zhang, the broader problem is the macro-level food security challenge.
„China is pretty self-sufficient when it comes to grain – it produces more than 90% rice, corn and grain – but more than 80% of its soybeans are imported,” he says.
„China should focus on the protein challenge. It has to be resolved sooner rather than later. China’s new middle class is used to having good protein products.”
The danger here was brought home last year when pork prices rose 135% in a month due to the African swine fever crisis that hit China’s pork industry.
Zhang believes Beijing has relied to some extent on the goodwill of food service operators and consumers so far, but that stricter measures could be put in place later.
„They’re trying to make it more of a moral campaign, but at some point it may need to be embedded in rules and regulations to hold people accountable,” he says.
Keeping a close eye on the offer
While the campaign’s focus is on food service outlets and consumer habits, the Chinese government is also looking at food waste in the supply chain between manufacturers and grocery stores, particularly in the area of fresh produce with shorter shelf life.
„There is also a lot of food waste related to food production and logistics,” says Zhang. „The Chinese like to buy fresh food: vegetables, meat, and other foods. If vegetables don’t sell in a day or two, the supermarket won’t sell them.”
„This is a technological problem. Those involved in manufacturing and transportation need to solve the problem. In this area, the government can initiate and subsidize R&D efforts in areas such as cold chain technology and better storage technology. This would help.” ensure that waste in production, processes and transport is reduced to a minimum. „
One company already working on this topic is the American fruit and vegetable major Dole Food Co.
Around 90% of Dole’s business in China revolves around fresh produce such as bananas, pine and avocados, which are either imported into the country or sourced from local suppliers for products such as peaches and corn.
Christian Wiegele of Singore, division president of Dole’s Asia Fresh business, welcomes the move by the Chinese government and says the company is exploring initiatives that focus on shelf life extension, cold chain technology and „ugly” fruit.
„We are looking for ways to extend the shelf life of fresh products,” he says. „We have set up a fund to look for partners who can come up with ideas for extending shelf life.
„Moving bananas from the Philippines to China could mean a maximum shelf life of 30 days. It would be important if we could extend that.”
With China – and Dole themselves – trying to avoid plastic packaging, it’s currently a popular idea to put a natural protective layer on the fruit.
„We are also investing in cold chain technology, especially in tier 3 cities and rural areas,” added Wiegele.
„We work with logistics partners in this area. Bananas, for example, have to be in a cold chain for a maximum of three hours after harvesting before they reach the retailer without interruption. We have to improve in this area.” Data and hard assets.
„And with ‘ugly’ fruits there is a perception that food has to look perfect. If not, people don’t buy it or throw it away and it becomes waste. As an industry, we need to educate consumers about the fruit, not on the outside perfect is perfect inside. „
Wiegele is certain that the Chinese government will urge the industry to do more, whether in the form of regulations or not.
„We are set up out of a mindset,” he says. „But will we have all the assets in place? This is a long journey and we are just getting started. But we are embracing it [the Clean Plate campaign]. As a responsible supplier, we play a role here and work to reduce food waste in the supply chain. „
This article was originally published in The 2021 edition of just-food’s digital magazine.