China wastes more than twice as much grain as the U.S. does.

China Needs Cleaner Plates

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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The next time you wipe the uneaten remains of your dinner into a trash bin, pause a moment and think of China. Despite the fact that 11.5 percent of the mainland's population was undernourished between 2010 and 2012, Chinese still manage to waste more food than Americans on an annual basis.

A lot more, in fact, according to data presented earlier this week by Wu Zidan, China's deputy director of the State Administration of Grain. Wu noted that Chinese waste more than 38 million tons of grains -- mostly rice and wheat -- every year. (There's no good data on total Chinese food waste, unfortunately.) By contrast, in 2012 Americans tossed a total of 36.43 million tons of food overall, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Of course, the disparity shouldn't come as a total surprise. There are four times as many Chinese as Americans, and many of them have entered the middle class over the last 30 years. On a per capita basis, Chinese still waste far less than their U.S. counterparts.

That won't be true forever, though: As China grows richer, its citizens are unsurprisingly wasting more food. In 2011, a senior Chinese official estimated that 10 percent of China's grain output -- which at the time amounted to approximately 55 million tons -- was lost to wastage. Anecdotal evidence of the problem is plentiful. A study cited by China Daily in 2011 revealed that 28.3 percent of the food served in one university canteen in Wuhan was shoveled into the trash. The situation has become so bad -- and so linked in people's minds with corrupt officials and their lavish banquets -- that President Xi Jinping made a "Clean Your Plate" campaign one of his signature initiatives in 2013.

China's problems don't only have to do with rising wealth. Despite vast improvements in the country's agricultural infrastructure, some areas continue to resemble India's farm sector, where small, independently-owned family farms dominate and food wastage is common. Producers often lack decent, clean, and dry storage facilities (including refrigerators and driers), not to mention an efficient way of getting food to market before it spoils. In India, an estimated 40 percent of all produce is wasted before it reaches the table. No similar figure exists for China. But in 2013, the director of the State Administration of Grain estimated that the country lost as much as 16.53 million tons of grain annually due to poor storage facilities and transportation methods (like sacks) that were vulnerable to pests, moisture, and mildew.

The impact of all of this waste goes well beyond empty stomachs. (According to Wu, China's uneaten grain could feed as many as 200 million people.) One peer-reviewed source estimates that producing all that wasted food consumes roughly as much water as the entire agricultural sector of Canada or Australia. Likewise, the same source points out that the land used to cultivate wasted food in China is comparable to the total arable land of Mexico. For the mainland, which is facing water shortages so severe that authorities are diverting entire rivers to cities thousands of miles away, such data should earn the attention of policymakers, environmentalists, and consumers alike.

To their credit, Chinese officials seem to understand the dangers of letting this problem swell. This week China's state media is launching a new campaign against food waste, carrying forward Xi's campaign from 18 months ago. Though public education won't solve the problem, it's a good start that should be followed with greater investment in rural infrastructure that can speed food to market. Already, according to one estimate, food buried in airless landfills globally emits more greenhouse gases (primarily methane) than any country other than, well, the U.S. and China. Neither they nor the world can afford to let that continue.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net