Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 2 September 2020



China cracks down on waste to ensure food security

A chilli-pepper eating competition in Ningxiang, Hunan province. China’s state broadcaster has exposed the hoaxes behind some ‘champion eaters’ as part of a campaign to tackle an estimated 18 million tonnes of annual food waste © AFP/Getty

China’s “champion eaters” have attracted a dedicated following for their ability to gobble down vast quantities of food. Swallowing eye-popping volumes of fried chicken, instant noodles and hot dogs have made these gluttons internet stars.

But this past weekend, China’s state broadcaster departed from its regular programming to expose the hoaxes behind their seemingly insatiable appetites.

Pretending to eat while secretly spitting out food, editing hours of footage to appear like a single sitting and vomiting between courses were among the tricks CCTV revealed.

The exposé was part of an intensifying campaign to tackle China’s estimated 18m tonnes of annual food waste, enough to feed about 40m people.

Everyone is concerned about the human epidemic, not the pig one, but in reality the problem with [swine fever] is still ongoing

Chan Kung, Anbound Research Centre

Last month, President Xi Jinping launched an initiative dubbed “operation empty plates” to safeguard China’s food security.

The timing of the high-profile campaign has stoked lively discussions about food shortages. The debate intensified after a report from the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences projected a potential food shortfall of 130m tonnes by 2025.

Fears have worsened since the coronavirus pandemic, devastating floods and deepening tensions with the US.

China’s agricultural ministry has sought to defuse anxiety by declaring “total confidence” in its ability to ensure grain supply, noting that the country produces more than 95 per cent of the grains it needs.

Despite plentiful rice, corn and wheat, China remains dependent on imported soyabeans and is facing a pork shortage. Both issues are of acute concern for a president who preaches the need for self-sufficiency.

Workers transfer products made with soyabeans imported from Brazil at a port in Nantong, Jiangsu province. China is making great efforts to reduce its reliance on imported soyabeans © AFP/Getty

“Tension between China and many other countries, especially the US, have made China worried about the level of imports, especially of soy,” said Si Zhenhong, a researcher focusing on food security in China at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.

Since the trade war with the US broke out, China has made great efforts to reduce its reliance on imported soyabeans. It has subsidised the expansion of soya farmland and supplemented the legume in pig feed, but progress has been slow.

China will have to import 90m tonnes of soyabeans and will produce 18m tonnes domestically in the year from October 2020, according to US Department of Agriculture predictions.

“Despite a high self-sufficiency ratio for grains, the balance between the food demand and supply has been quite tight in recent years,” Mr Si said. Farmers losing crops in many areas of southern China because of the floods have created a “severe challenge for self-sufficiency of staple grains”. 

Concerns over food — and its absence — have long been a preoccupation of China’s rulers. From 1949 to 1952, spanning the founding of the People’s Republic, the country suffered the worst famine in history. Tens of millions died from a combination of natural disasters and calamitous industrial and agricultural policies.

For the leadership today, the problem is not so much keeping China fed but rather providing middle-class Chinese consumers with the foods they desire at prices they can accept.

In recent months, a primary worry has been ensuring a steady pork supply. But efforts to rebuild hog herds after mass culling from an outbreak of African swine fever have been repeatedly set back by the flooding across southern China.

Food prices soared 13 per cent in July compared with a year earlier, largely driven by an 86 per cent rise in pork prices.

“Everyone is concerned about the human epidemic, not the pig one, but in reality the problem with [swine fever] is still ongoing,” said Chan Kung, founder of Anbound Research Centre, a think-tank. “Right now the livestock markets are overall not very stable.”

Customers at a supermarket pork counter in Wuhan, China. Food prices soared 13% in July compared with a year earlier, largely driven by an 86% rise in pork prices © Reuters

Delays in restocking hog inventory have kept prices at more than double the level they were before the outbreak, despite China having released 450,000 tonnes of frozen pork from its strategic reserves since the start of the year.

Last month, record floods hit south-western Sichuan province, the country’s top pork producer. Official data of damages to hog inventory have yet to be released, but videos and photos of dead pigs and flooded pens suggest farms did not escape the deluge.

For Mr Chan, the push to limit food waste is “in reality the same as asking everyone to pay attention to the problem of food security”.

But the campaign is set to move beyond advocacy and encouragement. Lawmakers have announced proposals for legislation to punish Chinese companies, institutions and individuals that waste food.

“What you eat and how much you eat is an individual right,” Zhao Wanping, a delegate to the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, told the state-backed Economic Daily newspaper.

“But if there is food waste, then that . . . harms the public good and there should be restrictions at the level of the legal system.” 

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