Chinese President Calls for Thrift, Ending Food Waste

Xi Jinping calls for "Operation Empty Plate".

"China has to fight drought and floods."
"China has to fight drought and floods.".

1974 poster via Getty Images

Food security has long been a concern for the Chinese government, with even Mao worrying about socking it away in case of drought or floods. Now, in the face of COVID-19, President Xi Jinping is calling for "resolute efforts to promote thrift and combat the wasting of food."

Frugality is a virtue
Frugality is a virtue.  Lloyd Alter

This is not a new idea in China; I was impressed by this sign on every table in the dining room of Broad Sustainable Construction when I visited in 2013. Food self-sufficiency has also been on the agenda for years; Xi Jinping noted in 2018 that "the rice bowl of the Chinese people, in any situation, must be firmly held in our own hands".

The current campaign is in response to a rise in food prices caused by torrential rains in southern China that have disrupted the rice crop, trade wars with the United States that have dramatically reduced imports, a loss of 60% of the country's pigs due to African Swine Fever, and distribution disruptions due to COVID-19. Xi Jinping's approach to the problem is to seriously go after waste. According to SCMP:

According to state news agency Xinhua, President Xi Jinping said China’s food waste problem was “shocking and distressing” and despite several years of bumper harvests the country needed to “maintain a sense of crisis about food security, especially amid the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic”. In addition, he called for better public awareness and the promotion of a social environment where “waste is shameful and thriftiness is applaudable”.
Dinner in Beijing
Dinner in Beijing.  Lloyd Alter

One of the issues is the food culture; people eat out a lot and order a lot of dishes, usually more than the number of people; my photo doesn't show every dish ordered for a 4 person meal. Zhang Wanqing of Sixth Tone reports that "diners at China’s 'large restaurants' waste 38% of the food they order, while students at school cafeterias waste 22% of their meals. In 2015, some 17 to 18 million tons of food went to waste in China — enough to feed 30 to 50 million people for a year."

In Wuhan, the catering association is promoting a system called N-1, where a group orders one less dish than the number of people in the party. Many are complaining that this is silly and too rigid. One is quoted on the BBC: "What if one person goes to a restaurant alone? How many dishes can he order? Zero?" Others complain that in these times, most people are already frugal. From the Guardian:

One user, alluding to the economic difficulties many in the country are facing, said: “This seems aimed at us bottom class, but we are already thrifty. This will mean nothing to the rich.” Another said: “I especially hate this kind of political action that leans on ordinary people to act.” Another wrote: “This level of control. Even the number of dishes people order has to be regulated?”

It does seem a bit much. Where I live, when we order too much food, we never waste it, we just take it home. This may be trading food waste for packaging waste, but we often reuse the containers too.

But one cannot argue with the principles: self-reliance, support your local farmers, reduce waste, practice thrift, it could all be ripped from the pages of Treehugger.