China’s Food Waste Challenge

The impact from the sheer level of food waste in China is felt economically, environmentally, and politically:

  • Economically, because farmers and consumers in effect pay for the waste as middlemen, processors, brands, and retailers are able to protect their margins more effectively.
  • Environmentally, as, for every unit of food wasted, China’s precious water resources are wasted while at the same time polluted by unnecessary chemical applications.
  • Politically, as China now relies extensively on foreign countries to supply the food stuffs required to satisfy local demand, and its cities’ landfills are unable to keep up.

Given these issues and the expectation that 300 million more people will join the urban economy; it is imperative that the drivers of food waste are addressed. Otherwise, with greater affluence and higher individual consumption, the pressure on China’s food and agriculture industries to be able to bring to market safe and affordable foods will continue to be compromised.

Food Waste is inefficient, risky, wasteful, and expensive

food waste composting

Inefficient

Increasing amounts of food waste together with growing population place tremendous pressure on the government to continue feeding a growing population. China accommodates 20% of world’s population but only 7% of its arable land, and as a by-product of this inefficient system, farmers often adopt highly intensive cultivation and pesticide practices that continuously affect the fertility of the available land, which in turn, reduces agricultural productivity.

Risky

There are a number of ways in which poor downstream management of food waste can lead to externalities that are both environmentally damaging and pose health risks. The overflowing of landfills is an issue, with 73% of the Chinese food waste ending up in them. In the anoxic condition within landfills methanogens can respire to produce methane, this is a highly toxic and flammable substance. It is also a highly potent GHG and as a result food wastage produces significant volumes of GHG emissions – approximately 3.2 Gtonnes globally – more than twice the amount of total emissions of the CO2 equivalent of all USA road transportation.

Wasteful

The externality of food waste does not just come in the loss of food itself but the full lifecycle of the produces requires a lot of resources. If water is taken as a guide, much of irrigated land requires water drawn from non-localized sources, this means that water is drawn away from its “natural” path to irrigate and produce crops. For every unit of waste loss, this water and subsequent energy and other resources are lost. Greater efficiency will allow for better utilization of all resource required for food production.

Expensive

Waste on all sides of the supply chain increases operating cost and as a result, prices for the end product increases with consumers shouldering the cost. Better management in these areas will mean that more produces will be realized at the end of the supply chain and a result the unit price of goods will reduce.

Drivers of waste 

China Food Wastage volumes by Food supply chain phase-01Farm size and productivity

With the average farm in China being 660m – 2000m in size, a significant portion of food waste is driven by the highly fragmented nature of how China’s food growth. With such small plots, increases in productivity are difficult to achieve, quality of the product is highly variable between farms, the increased need for consolidations by middlemen and processors results in more waste, and investments in cold storage, mechanization, or farmer training often fail to return. As such, and as born out through the chart above, up to 65% of food wasted comes prior to the consumer.

Poorly developed supply chain

With cold chain logistics in China still in its infancy, and struggling to find a profitable business model, much of the distribution channels for food distribution are inefficient and unable to maintain food freshness and as a result food wastage at this stage can reach up to 30% in some cases.

Lack of regulatory coherence

Until now governmental efforts to systemize waste collection and management have been ineffective. There is a lack of nationally coordinated approach to food wastage management, specifically within food storage and processing. Additionally, different ministries independently direct and guide separate steps of the waste management process. Local municipalities also contribute to the process fragmentation by implementing various sporadic independent initiatives, which contribute to a deep lack of internal alignment in policy.

Changing Consumer and Lacking awareness understanding

As a by-product of urbanization and an increasingly affluent lifestyle, the pattern of how consumers buy foodstuffs has changed dramatically. Consumers were once likely to visit the wet market every day to purchased items to be prepared during that day or evening, are now going to modern supermarkets to purchase items to be stored. Additionally, as consumers have grown more affluent, the demand for goods brought in from distant reaches of China and overseas has also grown. Each of which increases the likelihood of spoilage, and thus increasing the embedded cost of waste into the system.

Furthermore, despite some awareness-raising initiatives, consumers’ behavior has been proving to be resistant to a change in waste recycling. Beijing municipality has been pioneering recycling programs for 15 years now, however, only 50% of its municipal garbage and only 4.4% of personalized garbage within sampled communities was sorted well enough for recycling in 2011.

Actions need to be taken

Environmental concerns have resulted in the introduction of environment-friendly landfills and 20% of total Chinese landfills are of this standard. Many cities have been applying incineration and power generation technology, which account for about 25% of treatment capacity, and the trend for its use is rising. Aerobic composting has been used for some time, however, its application has been declining due to difficulties associated with organic decomposition and the process is time-consuming and requires considerable space, which is unavailable in many Chinese urban centers.

Design Chain graphic-01

Improvements in farm productivity

Traditional agricultural production in China has been concentrated in small-scale farming, which has brought many challenges and resulted in tremendous amounts of lost food. Inefficient machinery, storage facilities, a lack of systemized and updated processing technology frequently result in crops, vegetables, and meat being spoiled and thrown away. Introducing modernized, professional technology and better storage in the pre-consumer stage has great potential to substantially address the wastage problem. Financially incentivizing food producers to adopt more efficient farming technologies and wastage reduction programs could generate desired results in a shorter time.

Diversify and specify waste processing

New waste management technologies have been slowly entering the market with promising environmental and economic benefits. Microbiological fermentation and high-temperature sterilization into animal feed have been explored in many cities and have delivered promising, environment-friendly results, due to full recycling potential and great resource recovery and reusing food to feed the animals. Additionally, biomass pyrolysis, which converts food waste into fuel oil, is slowly being introduced; this is an effective way to get rid of food waste in an environmentally friendly manner. Anaerobic digestion, frequently used in many developed countries, is a relatively new technology in China. Food waste is decomposed into methane for electricity generation or utilization as cooking gas, and into fermented liquid and residues that in turn can be consumed as livestock food and organic fertilizers.

Investments in Cold Chain Logistics

In order to address the issue of supply chain investments in infrastructure associated with delivery are vital to waste reduction. Generating better more efficient cold supply will boost lifetime of products, maintain quality and contribute to the reduction of the waste stream. The Cold Chain Logistics Development Plan of Agricultural Products of 2010 has resulted in developments on both the transport and refrigeration side but opportunity for investment still exist in developing the industry further.

Consumer focused

While private small-scale awareness-raising campaigns (e.g. “I’m proud of my clear plate”) have been voluntarily spreading throughout the country, and advocates for sensible food consumption have risen, there are still (opportunities/needs) to focus on consumers.

Some local NGOs have started to introduce various initiatives on food consumption, waste recycling, and reuse by offering to exchange properly sorted kitchen waste for compost into organic vegetables – promoting a circular economy model. Initiatives that have begun to spread through school education programs, on the farm experiences, Furthermore, digital technology has been revolutionizing many sectors in China, and there is a great opportunity to address consumers’ awareness, facilitate behavioural change and increase compliance with responsible food consumption, recycling and collection programs through the use of mobile technology platforms.

Conclusions

Moving forward to 2025, consumer expectations and wealth will drive food consumption to levels yet to be experienced in China. This will place major pressure on food production and imports will likely increase. Inefficiencies in all areas of the supply chain must be addressed if success food provision is to be achieved within the country. Currently, the amount of agricultural land required to feed its population is simply not sufficient. If greater efficiencies are achieved on the supply side then the pressure on this land is relieved. One-way of doing this is to increase crop yields but the other is to reduce the waste in all areas of the value chain. If this can be achieved less expansion of land will be required and China will be better equipped to provide for its expanding population.

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