China’s Banquet Culture Is a Global Environmental Issue

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Nov. 8 2013 8:30 AM

Can China Clean Its Plate?

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Too much of a good thing?

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Not surprisingly, on my first trip to China, I found that the food was great. There’s also an awful lot of it. From what I’ve been reading, perhaps a bit too much.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Official dinners in China tend to be long, drawn-out affairs with dozens of shared dishes. (I’m not sure what percentage of the lazy Susans produced in the world each year are purchased in China, but I’m guessing it’s the vast majority.)

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This style of eating is great for trying new dishes. It also leads to an awful lot of waste. According to one estimate, more than $32 billion worth of food—enough to feed nearly 200 million people—is thrown away each year in China. In response to a campaign by Chinese netizens, President Xi Jinping has launched a “clean your plate” campaign, an effort to cut back on the nearly $48 billion the government spends on banquets every year. (Such displays create something of a PR problem in a country where malnutrition is, after all, still a chronic problem in some rural areas.)

To be fair, this is much more than just a Chinese problem. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of all the food in the world produced for human consumption goes uneaten. According to a report the agency released in September, thanks to the farmland needed to produce it, uneaten food alone has a carbon footprint bigger than every country except for the United States and China.

And naturally, those two countries, which both have big populations, big appetites, and a serious love of meat, are also primary sources of the problem.

The Chinese government’s new frugality drive is bad news for catering companies and restaurants in Bejing and Shanghai, who have seen their business drop by as much as 35 percent this year, but for the rest of the world, not to mention a few endangered species, it’s a positive step. 

I've been traveling in China on a reporting fellowship sponsored by the East-West Center and the Better Hong Kong Foundation.


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