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Cracking down on food waste in China

By Karolina Omenzetter

China is facing a food security crisis, and apparently mukbangs are the problem.

Food security concerns triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and flooding have consumed the Chinese government, leading to the formation of the “Clean Plate” campaign. The campaign directly impacts the general population and, to change eating habits, various initiatives including urging restaurants to serve fewer dishes to tables and the banning of mukbangs have been implemented.

The term “mukbang” originates from Korea and roughly translates to an eating broadcast. Mukbang videos show streamers holding a plethora of dishes which are oftentimes unhealthy foods that are consumed in one sitting. President Xi Jinping has antagonised the practice as promoting hugely wasteful behaviours. This is a fair assessment as there are reports that some influencers take bites of their food, only to spit it out, or induce vomiting to get through their large plates. These segments of footage are deleted during the editing process.

The Chinese Association of Performing Arts has announced the ban of depictions of eating large amounts or other wasteful behaviours concerning food on social media. People who continue to search for terms relating to mukbangs will instead be greeted by warnings to eat more responsibility in a bid to shift consumer behaviour.

The ban may help with the health of China’s citizens as various experts have voiced concerns that mukbangs may glamorise binge eating and poor eating habits. The importance of this cannot be understated, as a Lancet article states that 46% of adults are classed as overweight or obese in China. Although many mukbangers appear slim despite their large plates, some influencers exercise off-camera for as much as twelve hours per day. This is a luxury few working people can afford if they were to be influenced by these binge eating broadcasts.

The Clean Plate campaign has also directed its focus on an “n-1” initiative that means that people dining in groups in restaurants must order one less dish than the number of guests present at a table. The government has advised the public to be less wasteful when cooking, and for parents to encourage these habits in their children. It is expected that the government will adopt a strict stance when enforcing these laws.

Campaigns to reduce food waste are not rare in China, but rather than targeting the general population, previous initiatives affected officials hosting large banquets. There have also been food quotas and incentives for farmers throughout the 20th century. Despite the new measures, the government insists that it still has an adequate food supply, meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture suggests that there will be a corn shortage in the coming October until September next year. This is a huge blow to the country as China is said to be 95% self-sufficient in its supply of wheat, rice, and corn.

Several factors have led to concerns over food security in China. The climate crisis has been the main contributing factor, with changes in weather patterns leading to flooding far worse than typical in Southern China. The flooding is particularly devastating along the Yangtze River, which flows through major hubs of agricultural production for the nation.

According to President Xi Jinping, the Covid-19 pandemic has also meant that agricultural supply chains have been disrupted. This has been the trigger point for the Clean Plate campaign. Meanwhile, the trade war between China and the US only serves to heighten food security concerns.

Long term trends leading to issues surrounding food security include the growing population of China; the distribution of China’s population, rather than the number of inhabitants, poses a concern due to an increasing trend of urbanisation. Predictions estimate that China’s urbanisation rate may reach 65% by 2025, meanwhile, other estimates by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences suggest that, by that time, one in four members of its rural population will be over the age of 60. An ageing population in the countryside poses a serious risk in the reliable production of food to feed the nation.

Food production, processing, and transport within China are also rather inefficient, leading to one in six of China’s grain supply to be wasted before items even reach supermarkets. This is attributed to the subpar equipment that farmers have access to in the country.

Although the Chinese government is making advances in addressing consumer food waste by limiting access to mukbangs that influence consumer habits, gluttony is not the sole reason that China is facing food security concerns. A lack of technological advances in farming and unpredictable weather patterns due to the climate crisis will lead to food waste and security becoming a greater problem, not only for China but for other nations too. To avoid food shortages, media portrayals of food such as mukbangs and advertisements may need to be re-evaluated to elicit a change in consumer behaviour.


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