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Politics

Xi calls on Chinese not to waste food as crop shortage fears grow

State media has gone into overdrive to highlight gastronomic excesses

Chinese feasting in Haikou city in May. President Xi Jinping has advocated legislation and supervision to prevent food waste.   © AP

SHANGHAI -- Chinese President Xi Jinping is urging people not to waste food as concerns grow over crop shortages stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters.

Xi has advocated legislation and supervision to prevent food waste, calling it "shocking and distressing," state media Xinhua reported on Tuesday.

Floods in areas along the Yangtze River, the worst since 1998, destroyed 5.6 million hectares of crops in July, according to the Ministry of Emergency Management. Parts of the country remain inundated.

A video last month on Weibo, China's microblogging platform, showed a rotten corn stockpile at state-owned China Grain Reserves Group, or Sinograin. The company investigated the matter and denied that it took place at its granary in Heilongjiang Province.

The ability to feed a population of 1.4 billion is a top priority for the government, which relies on both domestic production and imports. But there are no signs yet of a stockpile shortage -- summer grain output stood at 142.8 million tons this year, up 1.21 million tons from a year earlier, official data show.

Even so, production of cereals, which include rice, wheat and soybeans, declined to 610 million tons in 2018, after reaching a record high in 2015, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Cereal imports in the first six month of the year rose 20.6%, in line with Sinograin's quota of 22 million tons of imports in 2020.

"China will maintain stockpiling of food due to uncertainties created by the pandemic, which is in place to offset bottlenecks in certain food production," said Yu Kaho, senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk advisory company in Singapore.

The quota represents 3% of China's annual grain consumption, suggesting a 97% self-sufficiency rate, the Italy-based U.N. agency the International Fund for Agricultural Development said in a May report. But the report also raised the issue of financial hardships faced by those who have lost jobs or had their pay cut as a result of the pandemic.

"Purchasing capacity, not food availability, seems to be the biggest threat to food security," it said.

In May, Premier Li Keqiang said 600 million Chinese, or 42% of the population, earned 1,000 yuan ($145) per capita a month, about one-sixth of a fresh graduate's salary in Shanghai.

State media has gone into overdrive to highlight food wastage and the response by retailers. Broadcaster CCTV pointed to the Daweiwang live streams that show people eating vast amounts of food as an example of encouraging gluttony and food wastage, calling on the public to "applaud thriftiness."

Chinese consumers threw away 18 million tons of leftovers in 2015, an amount that could feed 30 to 50 million people annually, according to a 2018 article by China Daily, citing a report by state-controlled China Academy of Sciences.

It is common to see leftovers in restaurants, particularly at wedding banquets. "Chinese like to splurge on food when hosting guests as a sign of hospitality," said Wang Ping, an executive with an investment bank in Shanghai.

A catering industry body in Wuhan announced an initiative to limit food orders based on the number of diners, while Quanjude, a roast duck restaurant chain, started selling single portions to cut wastage.

This is not the first time that Xi has spoken on this issue. As far back as 2013, he was already calling for greater restraint. Xi's reminder now comes amid rising geopolitical tensions.

Beijing has committed to buying $200 billion worth of U.S. goods, including agricultural products, under a deal signed with the U.S. in January. Beijing's relationship with Australia has also soured recently, with China raising tariffs on food imports after Canberra demanded an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, which had spread from Wuhan.

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