Learning from China’s food waste initiatives

As part of an urgent programme to safeguard China’s food security, president Xi Jinping recently launched ‘operation empty plate’ – an initiative to minimise food waste. We spoke to Philip Simpson, commercial director at ReFood, about whether we face similar issues closer to home and what lessons can be learnt. 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, increasing reliance on imports, devastating floods and rising tensions with the US, food shortages are becoming a real possibility across China. Experts are already projecting a national shortfall of some 130 million tonnes by 2025, highlighting the need for immediate action.

With the threat looming, Xi Jinping has declared that wasting food is no longer an option. His latest national campaign, ‘Operation empty plate’, aims to drastically curb food waste by contravening Chinese hospitality customs and encouraging a new set of practices.

Part of the initiative, “N-1 ordering” is a system intended to stop rampant over-ordering, encouraging those eating out to order one meal less than the number of diners. Another recommendation is that restaurants offer half-size and smaller portions, while also accommodating take-home bags and to-go boxes for the leftovers.

Food poverty is already a significant issue in the UK and, according to research, we are one of the world’s worst culprits for food waste

These are to be backed by extensive government messaging around frugal consumption and the problems with food waste.

The president’s ambition is to make food waste a national priority by strengthening legislation, supervision and education. This, in turn, aims to significantly reduce food waste across China, reducing the projected food shortfall and preventing food poverty throughout the country. 

So, what can the UK learn from ‘operation empty plate’? Surely a food shortfall is not a concern that we need to consider?

Unfortunately, food poverty is already a significant issue in the UK and, according to research, we are one of the world’s worst culprits for food waste. Each year we throw away an estimated 10 million tonnes of food – approximately 150 kilograms per person! 

Alongside the financial implications and risk to our food security, this is having a catastrophic impact on the environment. When food is left to rot in landfill, it generates gases 21 times more harmful to the environment than CO­2. When you consider the scale of this problem, it’s clear that we – like China – must do something to curb our food waste.

National cause

The important question, therefore, is how best to tackle it. Firstly, we need to improve education. Food waste is not simply a problem for politicians to solve, it’s an issue we must all combat together. By educating the general public – and businesses nationwide – about the consequences of wasting food, we can make the issue a national cause.

Secondly, we need to embrace new ways of thinking to minimise waste. Following the food waste hierarchy is key – prevent waste in the first place, re-use what we can, redistribute surplus and divert scraps to other uses (such as animal feed). We are already making great strides in this department, through national waste reduction campaigns, widespread adoption of charity redistribution schemes and numerous initiatives to reduce waste throughout the supply chain.

Thirdly, we need to provide a solution for the fraction of food waste that, as a nation, we cannot prevent. Things like gristle, bones and shells are ideal feedstock for food waste recycling, which turns discarded scraps into valuable green electricity and gas. For businesses, recycling unavoidable food waste can deliver a 53% cost saving (when compared with traditional waste management alternatives).

Learning about China’s ‘operation empty plate’ campaign highlights how many of us take food supply for granted

Finally, we need to embrace strict legislation – like China – to make the above ideas a part of our everyday lives. A national ban on sending food waste to landfill will be a critical part of our journey towards a more sustainable society. It would make our ‘throwaway culture’ a thing of the past and penalise those who fail to follow the rules, benefitting us all. 

Learning about China’s ‘operation empty plate’ campaign highlights how many of us take food supply for granted. We may acknowledge the farmers and appreciate a meal, but the fact that food is always available has lulled us into a false sense of security. Thanks to modern agriculture, food is currently an abundant resource, but that does not mean it is infinite.

We must learn from the aggressive stance taken in China and follow best practice, implementing national change to make wasting food a thing of the past. There are clear environmental, financial and food security benefits to changing the way we approach the issue and if we do not act soon, the consequences could prove devastating.

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