Written by Zhang-Yue Zhou.

What is food waste? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food waste at the consumption stage is the food discarded which is still suitable for human consumption.

Food waste at the consumption stage in China is enormous. According to China’s Bureau of State Grains, food wasted each year at dining tables is worth about 200 billion Chinese yuan, equivalent to the amount of food enough to feed over 200 million people. The estimate by another source is even higher: food wasted in China at the consumption stage would be sufficient to feed 250 to 300 million people each year. It is difficult to trace the origins on how these estimates were derived. It is highly probable that they are overstated. Nonetheless, the enormity of food waste can be easily witnessed across China in dining halls, restaurants and other food-eating outlets.

The reasons for such a large amount of food waste in China are diverse and complex. The reasons also tend to be somewhat different from those in other societies. Some of them are historical and cultural.

China used to be a land of famine. The last large-scale famine during which over 36 million people starved to death occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Due to frequent severe food shortages and famines, people often went without regular meals. As such, people often used to greet each other (a practise that continues today) by asking, “Have you eaten?” Offering food to visitors was and continues to be an important custom.

Nowadays, when entertaining others, offering a lot of food has become a way to show hospitality as well as to earn “face” because one could be seen as wealthy. Often, in commercial eating outlets, left-overs are not taken away for later consumption. Taking away left-overs may be seen as not “wealthy”, thus face-losing. Recent effort in public media to convince residents that taking away leftover food is the right thing to do has encouraged many people to take away left-overs for later consumption. However, still on too many occasions, left-overs are not taken away. Food waste at functions such as receptions, weddings, funerals, and birthday parties could be further reduced.

As an agrarian society for thousands of years, ordinary Chinese people have been poor. Too many Chinese people are so scared to be seen as poor. Reflected in dining, one may order well in excess of the needs (even without guests) in order to satisfy their psyche for being seen not poor or stingy. In commercial dining facilities the pressure often also comes from waiters and waitresses who make use of people’s psyche and subtly coerce the diner to order more so that they can earn more.

The Chinese way of dining (sharing foods from the same dishes with one’s own chopsticks) also contributes to food waste. While using one’s own chopsticks to pick up foods from the same common dishes is a great way for infectious diseases to pass on, it also discourages one to keep or take away left-over foods for later consumption, due to hygiene concerns. The waste due to this kind of food sharing is greater when not all diners are close family members.

Using public money for dining and widespread corruption leads to huge food waste, too. When using public money for dining, excessive amounts of food could be ordered. When entertaining others in an attempt to curry favour, food presented on the dining table of course has to be plentiful and expensive, and generally no one would care to take away any left-overs. The recent anti-corruption campaign has curtailed food consumption using public money and the acceptance of invitations by officials to attend luxurious dinners for illegitimate purposes.

Increased disposable income as a result of China’s fast economic growth has led some residents to no longer cherish food. Generally, food waste is higher in families with higher disposable income. Some individuals eat (and often, just order) excessive amounts of food simply as a way to show off that they are rich and they can afford it, feeling little guilt about wasting food.

Worth particular mention is a group of people who waste a lot of food: university students. Food waste in the dining halls of many universities across China is heart-breaking. These students, living in times of plenty, have little sense of cherishing food. When they buy, they care little about the price; if they do not like the food, they just throw it away. The majority of them are only children and they have an “unlimited” supply of money (except those from extreme low-income families) because the whole family supports (read: spoils) the only child.

Reducing food waste is of crucial importance to China for improving its long-term food security. In the past few decades, there have been rapid changes in food consumption patterns. Chinese people nowadays eat less food grains but more foods of high protein such as meats, dairy and aquatic produce. Much more resources are needed to produce such protein food than food grains. China’s food production resources are very scarce. Avoiding food waste is equivalent to having increased food production resources and food supply, thus enhancing the country’s future food security.

To significantly reduce food waste, education is the key. Recent efforts by public media in China to educate residents to avoid wasting food is very welcome. Many younger people, especially those who were born after the 1980’s, have little understanding about the misery of food shortages. Many of them do not know that in the not too distant past, there was a Great Famine in China. They have little sense about the importance of saving food. These young people should be routinely educated that wasting food is a disgrace. While each and every person is entitled to having food, no one has the right to waste food.

Education will be less effective in curtailing food waste resulting from public money consumption and bribery consumption. While the recent anti-corruption campaign has greatly deterred these kinds of consumption, reforms are still needed to establish necessary institutional arrangements so that public money will be used accountably and corruption will be effectively prevented in the first instance. This way, food waste on such occasions can be continuously reduced or avoided in the future when the current anti-corruption campaign ends.

Zhang-Yue Zhou is Professor in Business Studies at the School of Business at James Cook University, Australia. Recently he published “Food Consumption in China: The Revolution Continues”. Image Credit: CC by elias glenn/Flickr