Food loss and waste in China

19 June 2017

Food is lost or wasted throughout the supply chain, from initial agricultural production stage down to final consumption stage. Yearly global food loss and waste (FLW) is estimated at roughly 30% of cereals, 40-50% of root crops, fruits and vegetables, 20% of oilseeds, meat and dairy products, and 35% of fish, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons (FAO, 2011, 2015).

FLW is not only an enormous economic problem, but also one of the greatest environmental and social challenges to all countries as well as rising population and growing food insecurity. FLW inevitably also means a loss or waste of all the natural resources used in food production, process and distribution. FLW is responsible for adding 3.3 billion tons of global greenhouse gases emissions per year. And, if taken as a country, the carbon footprint of FLW would be the third only to China and the US (FAO, 2013).

In developing or low-income countries, FLW occurs significantly at the early and middle stages of food supply chain, while FLW takes place primarily at the consumption stage in developed countries. The causes of food loss in developing or low-income countries mainly relate to infrastructural, technical and managerial limitations such as poor harvesting, packaging, transport, storage, process, cooling facilities and marketing systems (FAO, 2011). Moreover, the situation of smallholders in agricultural production and processing sectors is also a factor that contributes to food loss.

China is currently undergoing a rapid transformation towards modern food supply chains, and has made great achievements in food production, process, distribution and marketing. According to FAO (2013), China ranked first in the world in the output of many foods, including cereal, rice, wheat, vegetable, roots and tubers, treenuts, fruit, meat, eggs and fisheries. Whereas, food security is still a big challenge for China as well as food safety.

Resulted from the rapid economy development, China stepped into middle-income country from 2008. The situation of food loss in China is also serious and post-harvest food loss amounts to about RMB300 billion per year (another figure shows that annually about US$32 billion worth of food is thrown away in China, WRAP, 2011), which worsens the problem of food security. The issue of China’s FLW is more complicated and almost all the causes lead to FLW in developing and developed countries could be found in China. All the factors including infrastructural, technical, marketing systems and consumer behaviors contribute to the FLW in China. For example, in 2010, China’s cold chain distribution rate (the ratio of actual distributed food using cooling facilities throughout the whole supply chain to all distributed food that should use cooling facilities) of fruits & vegetables, meats, aquatic products was only 5%, 15% and 23% respectively, and China’s cold chain transportation rate (the ratio of food actually transported via refrigerated vehicles to all food that should be transported via refrigerated vehicles) was only 15%, 30% and 40% respectively (NDRC, 2010).

In China, wholesale market, supermarket and e-commerce are the three most popular food distribution models, which roughly take over 70%, 20% and 10% of market share respectively. Especially, e-commerce model in China shows a tremendous growth speed in recent years. Each distribution model has its particular operation characters and requirements on the whole food supply chain from initial to final stage. Consequently, each distribution model has different impact on FLW. Distinguished from the previous research, it is probably an interesting research topic to study the issue of China’s FLW in an approach of distribution models along with the transformation and reform process in China’s agriculture sector.

Yanping (Roger) Liu
Associate Professor
Department of Management Science and Engineering, Nankai University, PR China