Opinion / OP Rana

Thrift is better than an annuity

By Op Rana (China Daily) Updated: 2013-02-08 07:40

Thrift is better than an annuityWillful waste makes woeful want, goes a Scottish proverb. There are, in all probability, similar saying in every language in the world because thrift is virtue in all cultures, not counting the hedonist and bacchanalian among them, of course. The ready availability of essential and not-so-essential goods today have given the license to the moneyed class to indulge in the pleasure of waste. The proliferation of terms like the clichd "shop till you drop" and "shopping therapy" bear that out.

The "pleasure of waste", which for some is akin to bliss or, wittingly or otherwise, a matter of fact, is adding to the threat of food security and thus shredding the already withered social fabric the world over.

The "culture" of waste is a relatively new phenomenon in China, which is slowly turning into an urban society of compulsive consumers and waste generators. This compulsion is evident in restaurants more starkly than anywhere else, especially during Spring Festival. Thankfully, it has not escaped the eyes of conscientious citizens and the country's leadership.

This is, however, not the time to wonder why over-indulgence has come to be regarded as a fad in a land which boasts of sayings such as "though you live near a forest, do not waste firewood' and "the superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary to virtue" (where virtue signifies thrift).

This is the time, as some NGOs have urged, to "clean your plate". The clean your plate campaign has the support of the Communist Party of China, which on its part, has promised to take measures to eradicate the menace of food wastage and promote an austere working style.

It is not uncommon to walk into an ordinary restaurant in China and see guests ordering more than they can possibly consume. The malady, of course, can acquire gargantuan dimensions in luxury restaurants, especially when it comes to a banquet, official or private. According to one estimate, more than 200 billion yuan ($32.16 billion) worth of food is wasted as leftovers in China every year. Others say the amount of food wasted in the country every year is enough to feed 200 million people. And to think that tens of millions of people live in poverty in China alone.

But a more scary reality awaits us when we look at the world beyond China. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers says in its recent report that up to half of the food produced in the world ends up as waste every year. This, according to the UK-based independent group's report, means that as much as 2 billion tonnes of food never makes it on to a plate.

The IMechE's findings more than corroborate a 2011 study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology - sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization - which said that about one-third of all food produced (1.3 billion tons) ended up as waste annually, in equal measure in developed and developing nations.

The ImechE says unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, buy-one-get-one free offers and (mainly Western) consumers' demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with "poor engineering and agricultural practices", inadequate infrastructure and poor storage facilities are to blame for the colossal waste.

Almost one-seventh of the world population of 7 billion is suffering from chronic malnutrition. The global population continues to rise and climate change (whether we believe it or not) is harming agricultural production across the world. The amount of food wasted, therefore, is aggravating the global food crisis. Swathes of land across Africa and Asia are experiencing droughts or drought like conditions, food production is falling even in the once high-yielding countries, and the unfettered use of fertilizers and pesticides is turning fertile soils sterile.

In developed countries, most of the food is wasted because it does not meet the corporate demand of "aesthetic" standards - up to 30 percent of the British vegetable crop is not harvested because it fails to meet marketing standards for size and looks. In developing countries, the loss mainly occurs because of poor storage facilities, poor connectivity between fields and markets, especially bad roads, and low prices offered to farmers.

China, unfortunately, loses a large percentage of its food on restaurant tables. Perhaps the younger generation in cities is unaware of the real value of food and thus doesn't think twice before ordering in excess. But the older generation is not too different. Perhaps they have forgotten the recent past and haven't heard the adage: From thrift to luxury is easy but from luxury to thrift is hard.

But those indulging in extravagance and exhibitionism should remember another Chinese proverb: A thriftless woman burns the entire candle looking for a match.

The author is senior editor with China Daily. E-mail: oprana@hotmail.com.

(China Daily 02/08/2013 page9)

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