Cutting our losses? Learning from food waste in China

China is succeeding in reducing consumer food waste by changing behaviours and cultures around food. Photo: E. Lee
China discards less food than the average country. What can we learn from China about reducing food waste across the supply chain?

The fact that a third of all food grown globally never gets eaten is astonishing.  But it also suggests one simple solution to meeting future food demand under climate change: eliminate food waste and there will be far less pressure on land, water, energy and biodiversity, plus huge greenhouse gas mitigation benefits.

Can we do it? Useful insight comes from the recent journal article Food losses and waste in China and their implication for water and land by Junguo Liu, Jan Lundqvist, Josh Weinberg and Josephine Gustafsson. China offers widely relevant lessons on food waste, because its food system shares characteristics of both high-income countries (long-distance supply chains with few intermediaries) and low-income countries (many under-resourced small-scale farmers).

The challenge of feeding 21% of the world’s population with 6% of global water and 9% of arable land suggests that efficiency gains will be high on Chinese policy agendas. So it is not surprising that China discards less food than the average country: Junguo and colleagues calculate a food loss rate1 of 19% (+/-5%) for food overall, which primarily comprises grains. However the sheer size of China means that this cereal wastage equals 56% of Africa’s annual production.

The authors report the hefty environmental impacts of non-consumed food on land and water use.  They do not calculate associated greenhouse gas emissions, but a rough estimate is a substantial 200 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year2 – greater than the emissions that would be saved from China’s ambitions to institute environmental best practices throughout all cement, chemical and steel industries.

What do we learn about reducing food waste across the supply chain?  The first lesson is that food waste will never be entirely eliminated. For example, toxicity scares are commonplace in Chinese food industries; maintaining food safety is likely to involve some waste. The second lesson is that losses are distributed unevenly, and need different strategies for reduction. Transportation entails only a 2% food loss rate, and improvements would mostly involve refinements to packaging, while bigger losses during would be reduced by greater mechanization.

Highest food loss rates in China occur at the consumer stage of the supply chain – as has been found too for USA and UK. Reducing consumer food waste involves changing behaviours and cultures around food. One interesting finding from the Chinese study is that food loss rates in canteens and homes are 5-7% but in restaurants a much higher 19%. This reflects Chinese traditions, similar to other countries, of being economical with everyday food, but showing largesse on special occasions.

Undeterred by traditions, policy-makers are taking action. President Xi Jinping has endorsed civil society’s “clean your plate” campaign and as a first step has limited government-sponsored banquets – seriously enough that some Beijing restaurants complain of a 35% drop in business, while government anticipates a tangible dent in the estimated USD 32 billion annual cost of food losses.3 Extrapolating globally, government policies that go beyond mere “awareness raising” will do far more to reduce waste and create a food-secure future.



1 The article under discussion defines food loss rate as the ratio of lost or wasted food to the total amount of food production in the country.

2 This very rough estimate is calculated from the greenhouse gas emission figures reported by China to the UNFCCC in 2005. Agriculture accounted for 15% of total emissions, including from land use, land use change and forestry.  Of these emissions, 19% are due to agricultural production not consumed as food. The simple analysis does not account for agricultural production for biofuels and industrial end uses, the relative role of rice production and methane emissions, nor many other confounding factors. FAO (2013) estimates the combined food waste emissions of China, South Korea and Japan to be in the order of 1000 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.

3  Method for the calculation not presented. SourceBy the Numbers: Reducing Food Loss and Waste - World Resources Institute, 5 June 2013 

This is the February 2014 edition of AgClim Letters, a regular analysis on science and policy written by Sonja Vermeulen, Head of Research for CCAFS. Sign up to receive AgClim Letters e-bulletin and read past editions. Your comments are welcome below.