The Communist Party of China implemented a law Thursday extensively regulating how much food each citizen in the country can eat, requiring restaurants to fine individuals if they leave too many leftovers and banning social media videos showing people binge eating.
Chinese lawmakers first proposed the law in December, after floods devastated 27 of the nation’s 31 provinces and threatened the integrity of the Communist Party’s proudest infrastructure project, the Three Gorges Dam. The law followed the debut of dictator Xi Jinping’s “Clean Plate campaign,” meant to encourage Chinese people not to waste food and be mindful to eat only what the regime deems necessary.
At the time of initial reports surrounding the food limitation laws, speculation around the world erupted that the Communist Party had reason to be concerned China would soon run out of enough food to feed its population. Beijing has since secured record purchases of food imports like corn from the United States, adding to concerns about shortages. The Party has nonetheless insisted no such food shortage is on the horizon and the law micromanaging every citizens’ individual meals has no connection to evidence the nation cannot grow enough food to sustain its population.
The law, now in vigor, establishes “a basic code of conduct and build[s] a long-term mechanism to stop food waste and guide society to foster rational and healthy catering consumption habits,” according to the government newspaper Global Times.
“Observers noted that adoption of the legislation against food waste does not imply that China is facing an immediate food shortage risk,” the newspaper insisted, “but it is a far-sighted move for food security as the country seeks to stabilize domestic grain output and ensure supply, facing increasing domestic demand for grain due to population growth and external uncertainties.”
The primary targets of the law are allegedly social media video personalities who have attained national popularity by binge eating on camera. Videos of people, often small women, eating outrageous amounts of food for the cameras have become a trend throughout Asia. The videos are, as of Thursday, illegal in China.
Away from the cameras, the law tasks restaurants with not over-serving patrons, lest they receive a fine, and allows them to overcharge if an individual orders food and “leave[s] excessive amounts of food uneaten.”
“Food providers that induce or mislead consumers into making excessive orders face fines of up to 10,000 yuan. A maximum fine of 50,000 yuan will be given to food service operators that waste large amounts of food, the law stipulates,” the Global Times detailed. The newspaper highlighted “concerns” that the law did not specify how much food is too much food or draw a line that restaurants and patrons can easily ensure to stay on the correct side of.
Citing another state news agency, Xinhua, the Global Times estimated that China wastes about 39.7 billion pounds of food a year in “urban catering” alone. The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, added on Friday that China wastes about 77.2 billion pounds of grain “at pre-consumption stages including storage, transportation and processing.” The outlet did not specify that the new law would address this waste in any way, however.
In December, when the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress (NPC) announced that it had drafted the law, it allegedly included other regulations that gave the Communist Party a say in how much food citizens could choose to serve at weddings, funerals, and other private events. The original bill was 32 pages long and, according to Xinhua, also heavily regulated the catering industry and mandated nationwide propaganda efforts, including flooding restaurants with banners and fliers pressuring patrons not to eat too much. The reports this week did not mention any of these provisions.
The reports this week repeated the assurances from the winter that China has enough food for its people.
“Chinese leaders have frequently emphasized the necessity of preventing food waste, despite the fact that China has seen consecutive bumper harvests,” the Global Times claimed. A government-approved expert told the propaganda outlets that China was absolutely not “suffering a food crisis” and that any concerns regarding food supplies were part of a “Western media” conspiracy.
China suffers from a significant shortage of arable land. According to the World Bank, only about 12 percent of China’s land area is arable, a percentage that has declined slightly since 2009. Independent investigations into China’s food self-sufficiency have shown a dramatic decline between 2000 and 2018. Japanese professor Goro Takahashi, who studies China’s self-sufficiency, told that nation’s Nikkei in early April that “an aggravated deterioration of agricultural soil” has led to a decline in China’s ability to feed itself. Reuters noted recently that about a fifth of China’s farmland is estimated to be unusable for agriculture because of man-made pollution, not a natural unfitness for the practice.
This week, the South China Morning Post posited China’s appetite for meat is exacerbating the problem, as the difficulty with obtaining enough feed grain has resulted in difficulties generating enough pork and other animal products to meet demand.
“Food security is in reality a feedstock problem, because China cannot produce enough feed grains such as soybeans to support its large and rapidly growing livestock industry and thus must rely on imports,” Dan Wang, chief economist at Hang Seng Bank, told the Hong Kong newspaper.
A lack of arable land can greatly exacerbate problems in the meat industry. According to the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal rights group that encourages plant-based diets, “it takes almost 20 times less land to feed someone on a plant-based (vegan) diet than it does to feed a meat-eater since the crops are consumed directly instead of being used to feed animals.”
“According to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, it takes up to 10 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat, and in the United States alone, 56 million acres of land are used to grow feed for animals, while only 4 million acres are producing plants for humans to eat,” PETA details on its advocacy website.
As of April, Chinese government media noted that the price of corn, a key grain for feeding livestock, had reached record levels. The United States became China’s top corn supplier in early 2021, supplying 70 percent of China’s imports of the crop and overtaking Ukraine. At the time of reporting the change, the Global Times admitted regarding corn that “China’s stockpiles have been rapidly depleted.”
China has also begun importing record amounts of beef, pork, and sugar in 2021, suggesting that food for livestock is not its only problem.
Xi Jinping launched his “Clean Plate” campaign in August 2020, amid sweeping floods that destroyed at least 5.28 hectares of farmland and affected as many as 55 million people in the Chinese heartland.
“Despite media hype that China is in a looming food crisis, which is worsened by the epidemic, floods in southern China, and food imports, Chinese agriculturalists said the above factors will not lead to a food crisis in China,” the Global Times insisted at the time.