China Announces Authoritarian Campaign To Combat Food Waste

Despite the campaign's supposed focus, it appears to be a response to food shortages.


Earlier this month, Chinese ruler Xi Jinping declared war on food waste. "Waste is shameful and thriftiness is honorable," Xi said, calling for a combination of "legislation, supervision, and long-term measures" to rein in waste under a "Clean Plate Campaign." Xi also warned China was facing a "crisis" of food security.

China's national legislature is expected to introduce a series of anti-food waste laws soon. If early steps are any indication, the campaign is likely to trample on individual rights.

Food waste, as I explain in my book Biting the Hands that Feed Us—quoting a U.N. report—refers to "food that completes the food supply chain up to a final product, of good quality and fit for consumption, but still does not get consumed because it is discarded, whether or not after it is left to spoil."

It's a remarkably and troublingly common problem across the globe. Roughly 40% of the food Americans produce goes to waste. Food security, on the other hand, refers to a person's access to sufficient food.

China has generally been considered to be food-secure—roughly on par with Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Argentina. But food waste is a massive problem in the country. "Chinese cities produce 25 percent of the world's municipal solid waste, most of it food," reported in April. It's also a problem the government has been combating for several years. 

Reports suggest several factors have contributed to China's mushrooming food-waste crisis, including supply-chain disruptions caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, trade tensions, low food prices that discourage future plantings, overreliance on imported food, and devastating floods that have inundated cropland in the country. Other reports cite additional factors, from droughts and pestilence to higher grain prices.

Given that most of these factors have little or nothing to do with waste, I wonder if the "Clean Plate Campaign" is really about fighting food waste, or it's instead a response to growing food insecurity in the country? China expert Gordon Chang tweeted last week that Xi's campaign signaled that China "is facing a severe food shortage." And a tweet this week from a Hong Kong pro-democracy group claimed China has banned use of words such as "hunger" and "starving" from its anti-food waste campaign.

We should fight food waste. Decomposing food waste releases billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. And that's just one part of the problem.

"Consider that food that goes to waste still used all of the resources needed to produce the food—including any combination of water and fertilizer (to grow crops), pesticides (to keep them free of pests), farmland (often converted from wildlands and tilled, both of which release stored carbon), and oil (to power plows and harvesters)," I explain in Biting the Hands that Feed Us. "Those resources are all used up whether a food is eaten or is left to rot in a field or landfill."

Thankfully, there are countless ways to reduce food waste—most of which don't require government to do more. For example, if we were to stop using taxpayer funds to subsidize farmers to grow way more food than consumers demand, we'd save money and waste less food.

Private efforts to fight food waste—some "highly profitable"—already exist in China. But rather than expanding those efforts, Xi sees more government as the answer.

To be fair, some changes enacted in the wake of Xi's announcement, such as renewed efforts to encourage diners to take their leftovers home, are smart and relatively nonintrusive.

But others are anything but. Spurred by Xi's plan and criticism from state media, for example, China's tightly monitored media outlets, including social media giant Sina Weibo, have vowed to crack down on food programming that shows "excessive eating and drinking," including ones that feature actual or feigned competitive eating.

Elsewhere, at least one restaurant in China has drawn customers' ire by placing scales near its entrance and urging "diners to weigh themselves and then order food accordingly." The restaurant, which had "recommended that women under 40kg (90lbs) should order no more than two dishes—with suggestions including sautéed beef and steamed fish head—while men weighing 70-80kg could have up to three" dishes, was forced to reverse course after a backlash.

But those women and men who could order up to two or three dishes might be the lucky ones. Since Xi's announcement, many restaurants have urged consumers to order one fewer dish than the number of people seated at a table. So, for example, four diners eating together should share three dishes. (Solo diners might be out of luck.) One local government agency took Xi's guidance to heart, vowing to "establish a frugal consumption reminder system" and "supervise consumers to eat frugally." Sounds lovely. Food-delivery services are also urging customers to order smaller portion sizes. One hotel restaurant is fining diners who waste food from the restaurant buffet.

Critics of Xi's plans, The Guardian reported, were quick to push back against the new guidelines, with many urging government officials and other wealthy diners to put up or shut up.

Some critics of the plan, reports CGTN, "are calling for boundaries to the campaign, asking if leftovers at restaurants are really such a crime."

The South China Morning Post reported this week that another obstacle Xi's plan faces is "long-held attitudes towards entertaining" in China, where sharing a bounty with guests is considered "a symbol of hospitality and social standing."

Still, China's crackdown does have its supporters. One self-avowed Marxist chided The Guardian for expressing mild discomfort about China's oppressive anti-food waste campaign.

Food waste is a problem around the world. Combating it must be a goal. But achieving that goal shouldn't come at the expense of individual rights—in China or anywhere else.