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Food waste   |   Environment & ethics

A culture war on food waste

Mini is one of China’s first and best-known binge eating vloggers. 

The diminutive 24-year-old first shot to notoriety in 2017, when a video of her eating an entire roast lamb in one sitting was uploaded to Shanghai video platform Bilibili. 

Three years later she has more than 10 million followers on Weibo, China’s social media platform, and a professional crew to capture her as she tucks smilingly into towers of 1,000 crayfish or 17kg platters of meat. 

But in August Mini found herself fronting a slightly different sort of video. 

Rather than chat casually to camera as she works her way through a meal big enough for six, the promotional clip, published on state-run newspaper site Guangming Daily, sees the vlogger appeal to her fans not to waste food instead. Consider reheating meals as a “super tasty” alternative to simply chucking away leftovers, she implores. 

Right at the same moment, the sort of viral content that made her and many other influencers famous began fast disappearing from social media. 

It’s all part of a new national effort in the country to cut down on food waste. 

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Mini is one of China's first and best known binge eating vloggers. Credit Technode

In August, President Xi Jinping called the volumes wasted in China “shocking and distressing” as he announced the launch of the Clean Plate Campaign 2.0 (the first iteration having been launched back in 2013). He urged the country to “maintain a sense of crisis about food security” amid the ongoing supply chain shocks being felt around the world as a result of Covid-19.

But as the clampdown on competitive online eating demonstrates – by September, more than 13,000 competitive eating accounts had been shut down for violating the new policies on food waste – the country has gone about curbing its waste in some novel ways. 

In particular, rather than focus on production, manufacturing and retail where it’s believed much of the waste occurs, China seems to have centred its efforts on the individual and the final stage of consumption, whether in hospitality or at home. 

Many restaurants, for example, are reportedly urging groups of diners to order less dishes to share, while lone diners are receiving just half portions as a way to combat cultural taboos around sharing food or not being seen to serve enough food for guests. 

There were even reports of one restaurant in Hunan weighing patrons as they made their way in before recommending quantities based on their weight. At one elementary school meanwhile, there were reports of students being told to send their teachers a video of their dinner each night to prove they’d cleared their plate. 

The approach has certainly raised some eyebrows. But could the UK learn a thing or two from China’s focus on culture, content and the end consumer? 

What is unequivocal is that this prioritisation of food waste in an industrial powerhouse like China can only be a good thing. 

According to one in-depth study back in 2015, which collected data across the four major cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Lhasa, the country wastes around 17-18 billion kilograms of food annually – enough to feed up to 50 million people for a year. Another by the National Bureau of Statistics estimated those levels could be even higher, with household waste alone of around 50 billion kilograms each year. 

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Food is a major emitter of greenhouse gases once it reaches landfill.

“Food waste per capita in China is much lower than here in the UK and other wealthy western countries,” says food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart. “However there are a lot of people and any national change in China has colossal consequences for the rest of the world. 

“Within China itself, where food demand continues to grow, making the most of the food resources China has available makes a huge amount of sense, increasing food availability for a hungry population whilst reducing environmental burdens.”

In terms of how it is going about it, there is some logic in clamping down on online influencers overeating for entertainment, he adds. “In the UK and elsewhere, society is increasingly sensitive to distasteful displays of profligacy – all the more so since the Covid lockdowns that have plunged even more people into food poverty.”

There are also parallels to be drawn between their focus on culture and influential figures, and similar successful initiatives here in the UK, he points out. The fact that since 2008 Brits have reduced their individual food waste by a third each is in no small part thanks to a grassroots movement gaining traction with “celebrity chefs, mass media and widespread peer-to-peer cultural expectations.” 

Think Hugh’s War on Waste, foodie start-ups like Toast Ale and food sharing apps like Olio. The distinction, of course, is the role of government. “Fostering more of this is probably going to be more successful within the context of western democracies than governments prescribing changes to practices within arts and entertainment,” says Stuart. 

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Despite campaigns, food waste in the UK remains a major issue. 

In addition, just like Chinese restaurants are tackling their own cultural taboos around over-ordering, there is plenty of work to be done in the UK around some of our own wasteful stigmas. Take doggy bags. Research by food waste app Too Good to Go last year found that 30 per cent of 16-24 year olds are too embarrassed to ask for a doggy bag in a restaurant, for example. If they did they could save 1.3 million portions of food per week. 

“Removing the stigma around taking a doggy bag home would be a great step,” says co-founder Jamie Crummie. “This is something that Zero Waste Scotland have been working on and we’re hoping that the rest of the UK will follow suit so plate waste becomes a thing of the past.”

But – though it can be tricky to get a clear view on exactly which steps China is taking higher up in the supply chain – it does appear that this focus on individual behavioural change is “excessive,” believes Jessica Sinclair, head of policy at food waste campaign group Feedback.

Doing so “diverts attention from the fact that businesses need to be regulated so they take more ambitious action, ignores primary production waste, and ignores the fact that consumer decisions occur within a ‘wasto-genic’ environment that is significantly shaped by supermarkets and currently encourages waste,” says Sinclair.  

Only so much blame, in other words, can be laid at the door of online influencers like Mini. But be that as it may, when her legions of loyal followers sit down to search the internet for her latest clip they may find a polite government warning pop up instead. ‘Cherish food, refuse waste, eat properly and have a healthy life.’

This article was initially published in the latest print issue of Wicked Leeks. You can read the full magazine online and for free via Issuu.

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