China has stepped up measures to reduce food waste after President Xi Jinping called the amount wasted “shocking and disturbing.”
The “Clean Plate Campaign” comes after Mr Xi stressed that Covid-19 had “sounded the alarm” about food waste.
He added that China needed to “maintain a sense of crisis over food security”.
It also comes after weeks of massive flooding across southern China, which left farms destroyed and tons of crops destroyed.
China’s state-run news agency Global Times tried to downplay what it called “hype media” that China was heading for a food crisis, exacerbated by the epidemic.
State TV also criticized the lifestyles that filmed themselves eating large amounts of food.
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Following Mr. Xi’s message, the Wuhan Catering Industry Association urged restaurants in the city to limit the number of dishes served for dinner – implementing a system where groups must order one dish less than the number of dinners.
So, under this system called “N-1”, a group of 10 people can order only 9 dishes.
But it is likely that the system will take time to adjust, in a place where it is seen as polite to order more than the required amount.
In a group setting, empty plates are sometimes seen as a sign of a bad host – implying that an insufficient amount of food had been ordered for the guests.
The idea of the “N-1” faced some criticism online, with some stressing that it was “too rigid”.
“What if a person only goes to a restaurant? How many dishes can I order? Zero?” asked a person on the microblogging site Weibo.
Others said most restaurant dinners usually do not lose much food, showing instead extravagant banquets thrown by officials.
The Chinese state agency CCTV also called the lifestyles that usually film themselves eating large amounts of food.
Commonly known as “Mukbang” – such lifestyles are popular in many parts of Asia including China.
According to CCTV, some of these creatures are then thrown away as they are unable to digest large amounts of food eaten.
It is not the first time China has launched a campaign against food waste. In 2013, the “Operation Empty Plate” campaign was launched – although it aimed at extravagant parties and receptions held by officials, rather than drawing public attention.
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According to WWF China, about 17-18 million tons of food went to waste in China in 2015.
Years years of efforts to reduce waste
Kerry Allen, media analyst in China
President Xi is portraying the “clean waste campaign” as an action to help the international community during the pandemic, but in reality China has for years had ambitions to reduce the waste generated by its citizens 1.4bn.
The amount of food waste in China is enough to feed 30 to 50 million people a year. So aggressive tactics have been needed to reshape the way people think about their consumption habits.
In July 2019, the city of Shanghai – the largest and most populous in the world – introduced strict rules, forcing individuals and companies to properly recycle their food waste. Citizens faced fines such as punishment for non-compliance, or fines for assessing social credit – a controversial system that affects economic and social prospects.
The Shanghai model has since been rolled out to other cities.
China is also facing a growing problem of overweight. In 2016, the country surpassed the US to have the largest number of obese people in the world. And as China’s job market shrinks – one of the many negative impacts of a now-defunct child policy – longer study and working hours, as well as bad eating habits, have driven weight gains.