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China’s food loss and waste embodies increasing environmental impacts

Abstract

Food loss and waste (FLW) hampers global food security, human health and environmental sustainability. However, monitoring and benchmarking FLW reduction is often constrained by the lack of reliable and consistent data, especially for emerging economies. Here we use 6 yr large-scale field surveys and literature data to quantify the FLW of major agrifood products along the entire farm-to-fork chain in China. We show that 27% of food annually produced for human consumption in the country (349 ± 4 Mt) is lost or wasted; 45% of this is associated with postharvest handling and storage and 13% with out-of-home consumption activities. We also show that the land, water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus footprints associated with total FLW are similar to those of a medium-sized country (such as the United Kingdom’s in the case of carbon footprint). These results highlight the importance of better primary data to inform FLW reduction actions and ensure food security and sustainability.

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Fig. 1: Food flow in China’s supply chain from farm to fork.
Fig. 2: Estimated FLW in China (annual average for the period 2014–2018).
Fig. 3: Comparison of FLW between China and other countries.
Fig. 4: Environmental footprints of FLW in China.
Fig. 5: Environmental footprint scenarios.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in the Supplementary Information. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The codes for data processing are conducted in Microsoft Excel 2016 and Matlab (R2020a), and data illustration is generated in Origin 2016 and Microsoft Visio 2010.

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Acknowledgements

This work is based upon extensive FLW data collected between 2013 and 2019 by nearly 50 researchers, all of whom we thank for their hard work and dedication. We especially acknowledge (alphabetically) Junfei Bai, Xiaochang Cao, Xiaopeng Chen, Liwei Gao, Peng Hou, Jiazhang Huang, Tai Li, Yunyun Li, Jun Liu, Litao Liu, Yao Liu, Fei Lun, Qi Qin, Lingen Wang, Yu Wang, Liang Wu, Wenbin Wu, Shiwei Xu, Wen Yu, Jinling Zhao, Dan Zhang and Panpan Zhang for invaluable collaboration and the hundreds of student assistants in the field surveys. This work has also benefited from the discussion with Morvarid Bagherzadeh from the Trade and Agriculture Directorate, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and with Concepcion Calpe from the FAO. Sponsors have included the Strategic Priority Research Programme of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (XDA26050200), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71233007), the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme of the European Union (REFRESH, 641933), the National Key Research and Development Plan of China (2016YFE0113100), the China National Postdoctoral Program for Innovative Talents (BX20190326), Oxfam, and WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature).

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Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

G.L. and S.C. conceived, designed and led the work. X.L. and L.X. coordinated the field study and data collection on consumer food waste. S.L. and G.C. coordinated the field study and data collection on supply chain food losses. Y.H. and J.L. contributed to footprint data collection and analysis. Z.D. enhanced the international comparison and discussion. L.X. and G.L. drafted the paper and drew the figures. All authors contributed to discussing the results and writing the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gang Liu.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Food thanks Dabo Guan and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, results, Figs. 1–15, Tables 1–39 and references.

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Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Source data from the model results to generate Fig. 1.

Source Data Fig. 2

Source data from the model results to generate Fig. 2.

Source Data Fig. 3

Source data from the model results to generate Fig. 3.

Source Data Fig. 4

Source data from the model results to generate Fig. 4.

Source Data Fig. 5

Source data from the model results to generate Fig. 5.

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Xue, L., Liu, X., Lu, S. et al. China’s food loss and waste embodies increasing environmental impacts. Nat Food 2, 519–528 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00317-6

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