Wasted food in China could feed 200 million
A dish created in the shape of a snake is presented on a table as residents stand around, during an annual local celebration for the upcoming Chinese New Year in Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 4. (Darley Shen/Reuters)
China is in the midst of a high-profile 'Clean Your Plate Campaign' aimed at reducing the staggering amount of food that is heaved into wastebins across the country every single day.
Each year China wastes enough food to feed 200 million people or one-sixth of the country's 1.3 billion population according to state news agency Xinhua. Further, about 50 million tonnes of grain, or a tenth of the country's annual production is also wasted.
Gone are the days when North American children in the '50s and '60s were told to eat their dinners because "people are starving in China." China's wealthiest cities now have a surfeit of food, and extravagant banquets - especially by state officials, but also by the middle-class - have become the norm.
The underlying cause of this waste, according to respected journalist Raymond Zhou, is the deep-seated Chinese belief in mianzi or "face." A banquet host must always be seen as being generous - and capable of being generous.
"The more distinguished the guests, the more food he will order," Zhou writes. "If every dish is finished by the end of the meal, the host will not be complimented for being smart. Instead, the host may receive behind-the-back sneers that he or she was being too stingy."
Adam Minter, a Shanghai-based correspodent for Bloomberg, reports that the "Clean Your Plate Campaign" was started by Chinese microbloggers. But it dove-tailed so well with a government campaign to crack down on official extravagance that the official People's Daily newspaper and the government itself co-opted it.
The timing couldn't be better: with the Chinese New Year about to begin, so too will a tide of banquets.
The campaign has garnered spirited national attention, especially after a slideshow of sumptuous banquets posted online by Xinhua photographers, ending with a shot of a poor Gansu province farmer who can only eat meat 10 times per year. Poverty still exists in China.
One respected agricultural scientist, Yuan Longping, has pushed to make food waste a crime.
"China has a large population and little arable land - and we scientists worked hard to improve rice harvests," he told state broadcaster CCTV. "But after production was increased, people wasted it."
Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller