Operation ‘Empty Plate’

What Can We Learn From the Programme to safeguard China’s food security and minimise food waste?

Su-lin, Flikr

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, reliance on imports, floods and tensions with the US, food shortages are becoming a real possibility across China.

Experts project a national shortfall of 130 million tonnes by 2025, highlighting the need for immediate action. President Xi Jinping has declared that wasting food is no longer an option and his latest national campaign, ‘Operation empty plate’, aims to drastically curb food waste by contravening Chinese hospitality customs and encouraging a new set of practices.

Part of the initiative, “N-1 ordering” is intended to stop rampant over-ordering, encouraging those eating out to order one meal less than the number of diners.

Another recommendation is that restaurants offer half-size and smaller portions, while also accommodating take-home bags and to-go boxes for the leftovers. 

The president’s aim is to make food waste a national priority by strengthening legislation, supervision and education and in turn, to reduce significantly food waste across China.

So what can the UK learn from ‘operation empty plate’? Surely a food shortfall is not a concern that we need to consider?  Unfortunately, food poverty is already a significant issue in the UK and according to research, we are one of the world’s worst culprits for food waste. Each year we throw away an estimated 10 million tonnes of food – approximately 150 kilograms per person! 

Alongside the financial implications and risk to our food security is the catastrophic impact on the environment.  When food is left to decompose in landfill, it generates gases 21 times more harmful to the environment than CO­2. When you consider the scale of this problem, it’s clear that we – like China – must do something to curb our food waste.

So what can the UK do to tackle the problem? 

First: improved education, food waste is not simply a problem for politicians to solve, it is an issue we must all tackle by educating the public and businesses nationwide about the consequences of wasting food and make it a national cause.

Second: embrace new ways of thinking to minimise waste. Following the food waste hierarchy is key – prevent waste in the first place, re-use what we can, redistribute surplus and divert scraps to other uses (such as animal feed). Some progress is being made via national waste reduction campaigns, adoption of charity redistribution schemes and numerous initiatives to reduce waste throughout the supply chain.

Third: provide a solution for the fraction of food waste we cannot prevent. Things like gristle, bones and shells are ideal feedstock for food waste recycling that turns discarded scraps into green electricity and gas. For businesses, recycling unavoidable food waste can give a 53% cost saving compared with traditional waste management alternatives.

Finally: strict legislation – as in China – to make the above ideas part of our everyday lives. A national ban on food waste to landfill is a key part of a more sustainable society and would make our ‘throwaway culture’ a thing of the past, penalising those who fail to follow the rules, benefitting us all. 

We can learn from the aggressive stance taken in China and follow best practice, implementing national change to make wasting food a thing of the past. 

There are clear environmental, financial and food security benefits to changing the way we approach the issue — if we do not act soon the consequences could prove devastating.