China: a food crisis behind the hunt for waste?

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SHANGHAI | “Operation Finish the Dishes”: A campaign by President Xi Jinping against food waste raises the issue of food security in China, which is in the grip of severe flooding and tensions with its main suppliers.

With 1.4 billion mouths to feed, food security is crucial in China, a country still hit in the early 1960s by a famine that claimed tens of millions of victims.

The economic boom of the Asian giant has since been accompanied by an explosion in agricultural production and imports … and pantagruelic banquets have become the norm in some circles.

So much so that President Xi judged in mid-August “shocking and disturbing” the waste of his compatriots. “Despite the good harvests our country has garnered each year, it is necessary to maintain a sense of the crisis in matters of food security,” warned the strongman from Beijing.

What to raise questions.

Summer floods this year destroyed huge areas of arable land in the Yangtze basin, the country’s rice basket.

First importer

Earlier this year, the COVID-19 crisis disrupted supply chains. Earlier, an African swine fever outbreak devastated the national herd and doubled the price of pork – the most consumed meat in the country.

In addition, there are long-term problems: rampant urbanization, which destroys arable land, and rural exodus, which empties the countryside of labor.

To feed the world’s largest population, Beijing has become the world’s largest importer of food products.

But its relations have seriously weakened in recent times with three of its main suppliers: Australia, Canada and the United States. And the Chinese power has taken sanctions against certain agricultural imports from these three countries … even if it pledged in January to increase its purchases of American products.

For now, the Communist regime ensures that all is well on the supply front.

“Some are starting to wonder if there will be a shortage this year (…) In fact, there is no reason to worry,” wrote the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on August 17 in a report. .

But the same public body further warned that the country’s “food deficit” would increase in the coming years, unless agricultural reforms were initiated.

Bargain for a sandwich

In the long term, China must protect its land from the appetites of real estate developers and improve the lot of its peasants to convince them to continue farming, observes researcher Li Guoxiang of the academy’s Rural Development Institute.

According to media reports, farmers, banking on higher prices, are building up stocks, thereby exacerbating market imbalances.

Hence the need to reduce waste – and consumption, in a country where obesity, once unknown, has more than tripled between 2004 and 2014.

With the food that it throws away each year, China would have enough to feed its South Korean neighbor.

As in the heyday of Maoism, President Xi’s word was enough to generate a plethora of more or less astute initiatives, like that of this restaurant in Changsha (center), which invited its customers to weigh themselves before ordering a menu. adapted to their possible overweight.

Other establishments impose a “deposit” on their customers, which is only refunded if they have properly liquidated their plates.

In a Shanghai café, AFP this week witnessed an argument between two customers, one of whom had left his sandwich almost intact before leaving the premises.

But like many other political campaigns, of which Beijing has the secret, this one is likely to have “less impact than is generally supposed”, observes the analyst Rosa Wang, of the agricultural consulting firm JCI. China in Shanghai.

According to her, COVID-19 has already had the effect of reducing consumption: confined to their homes, many households have rediscovered frugal cooking at home, at the expense of restaurant meals.

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