World

Food wasted in China can
feed 200m people

During the famine years in the late 1950s, children ate coal to fill their bellies, wrote Chinese Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mo Yan in his novel "Frog".

These days, though, many Chinese have forgotten what it is like to be hungry - restaurants and households throw out an estimated 60 million tons of food a year, enough to feed 200 million people, or 15 per cent of China's population.

It is no wonder China's grain authorities urged people to fast in the run-up to World Food Day yesterday.

One person taking the lead was Shu Gang, head of the Chengdu grain administration in Sichuan, south-west China.

"Many young people have no sense of starvation. Fasting can awaken people's memory of it," he told local media.

Indeed, many have forgotten the Great Leap Forward campaign, from 1958 to 1961, when an estimated 30 million Chinese died because of the Communist Party's failed industrialization plan.

Today, China is not only producing enough for itself but also one of the world's biggest food donors.

But it is also throwing more food away. China's food refuse has grown yearly, by 5 to 10 per cent in recent years, said environmental scientist Ren Lianhai from the Beijing Technology and Business University. He added that the amount has increased as China becomes more urbanized and living standards improve.

For years, cities like Beijing and Shanghai have stressed the importance of conserving food, with little success.

Many staff canteens also post notices exhorting people to take only what they can eat. In Beijing's Easy Home Office Tower cafeteria, which sees a lunchtime crowd of about 600, nearly 150kg worth of rice, meat, vegetables and barely eaten buns are left behind daily. "This is still considered okay, not too serious," said chief cook Xing Dongqing.

But Dr Ren said the wasting of food is more serious in China than in other countries, given Chinese eating habits. "They tend to eat together and don't usually finish all the food. This is especially if someone is giving a treat. The host feels a loss of face if no food is left," he said.

Even as so much food gets thrown away, many children in impoverished corners of China still do not get enough to eat.

Just last year, Beijing approved a plan to set aside 16 billion Yuan (US$2.54 billion) a year to provide lunches for 26 million schoolchildren in the countryside.

The discarded food has also created a headache for the authorities, due to the lack of processing plants. In Beijing, for example, about 13,500 tons of food waste are produced daily by households and restaurants, but the capital can process only 800 tons a day. While food waste traditionally ends up as livestock feed, there are growing calls for it to be treated first to prevent the spread of diseases. Food waste in China is also oilier compared with that elsewhere, and so, harder to process.

Ultimately, consumers should order only what they can eat, while restaurants should sort out food garbage for easier recycling. "They need to have a sense of social responsibility," Dr Ren said.

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