In My Family, Food Rarely Goes Wasted
“Finish your rice or they’ll turn into pimples!” is how my family used to scare me and my cousins into licking our plates clean when we were little. I grew up in China with family members that lived through the Great Leap Forward, a tumultuous few years (1958-61) that ultimately resulted in a severe famine that killed tens of millions of people. My grandmother once told me that she used to wander the streets in tears looking for any scrap food she can bring home to the kids. Families were given a strictly limited amount of rice and flour each month, while food vouchers were required to buy goods such as eggs and meat, but these were extremely rare. So on most days it was a luxury just to have 馒头 (mantou, a very basic and plain flour bun). Needless to say, people learned to appreciate any food that was available, even to this day.
But there is also another side of the Chinese mentality on food. While many avoid wasting food at home, they order an overabundance at dinner parties in order to be perceived as wealthy and gracious hosts. This tradition ends up wasting a lot of food, contributing to an alarming amount that is lost and wasted globally each year. In a new working paper released by the World Resources Institute, one out of every four calories produced globally is lost or wasted. Food loss occurs at the farm level (in damaged crops, storage and/or transportation losses) while food waste occurs at the grocer and consumer level (thrown out either before or after it has spoiled).
This is hurting us both economically and environmentally. Economically, $32 billion worth of food is lost or wasted each year in China, which has become a major part of urban landfill. Environmentally, each year 198 million hectares of land is used to produce food that does not get eaten--roughly the size of Mexico, while the amount of water used to produce this wasted food can fill up 70 million Olympic-size swimming pools. According to WRI’s report, if the amount of food lost and wasted were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world. Another impact is on food security. In 2012, NRDC’s Food and Agriculture team examined food losses at every stage of the food supply chain in the U.S. and found that by saving just 15 percent of the lost food, we could feed an additional 25 million Americans every year. Currently, there are 925 million people in the world that suffer from chronic hunger. With a global population of 9.1 billion people expected by 2050, food security challenges will only increase.
Last December, Chinese President, Xi Jinping, initiated a national “austerity” campaign. Among other things, the campaign aimed at reducing official graft and extravagance. So far it seems to be working: over 2,000 officials have been investigated and punished for non-compliance, according to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China’s top anticorruption agency. Meanwhile, luxury restaurants in Beijing saw a 20 percent drop in high-end seafood dishes during this year’s Chinese New Year. And according to the Ministry of Commerce, sales of shark fins –a very expensive delicacy—have dropped more than 70 percent due to lower demand.
Advocacy groups are contributing to the movement with bottom-up approaches, such as educational campaigns on food waste reduction. One online anti-food waste campaign, Operation Empty Plate, was officially endorsed by Xi Jinping. Another campaign, Clean Your Plate, has distributed leaflets and posters to thousands of restaurants in Beijing to encourage restaurant owners to sell smaller portions and restaurant customers to finish their food. Both campaigns have become very popular on Weibo (China’s Twitter equivalent) and have received national coverage. To see how you can reduce your food waste, here is a blog from my colleague with 10 very helpful tips.
Reducing food waste benefits the environment, the economy as well as food security for current and future generations. As my grandmother likes to say, “就是吃撑了也别剩饭” (“better to be uncomfortably full than to waste food.”) While I’m not advocating that we gorge ourselves, we can and should do our part in following the theme from this year’s World Environment Day: Think, Eat, Save – Reduce Your Foodprint.
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