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Can managing food waste help China meet its climate goals?

There is no kitchen waste at Li Yan’s restaurant: everything gets eaten, reused or composted.

There is no fixed menu, either. The 40-year-old chef buys seasonal local produce fresh from market vendors every day, carrying a bamboo basket on his back. Most elements in the dishes are made from scratch, whether it’s curry paste or bread. Li and his team also make bars of soap using recycled cooking oil.

Li is the co-founder of Bistro & Bowl in Dali, Yunnan province, one of China’s first restaurants to promote a philosophy of sustainable and climate-friendly food.

Although not a strictly vegetarian restaurant, one of its main draws is its variety of plant-based dishes, which usually make up more than three-quarters of the daily menu. Recent hits have included a salad with local goat’s cheese and broccoli and rice steamed with potato wrapped in lotus leaves. Meat dishes such as beef bourguignon have also featured, but Li only sources free-range meat from local farms.

Li says he wants to use his skills to guide people to eat more healthily and sustainably for the benefit of the Earth. “If I did not do this, I would feel guilty for many, many years,” he tells China Dialogue.

According to a study published in Nature Food, more than one-third of the world’s human-caused greenhouse gas emissions comes from the food system, meaning all steps related to farming, processing, transporting, consuming and disposing of food.

Yet, most governments are overlooking the potential emissions savings that could be realised by transforming this system.

China is home to the world’s largest food system, which was responsible for roughly 13.5% of its greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. The current priority, however, is ensuring food security: in its first document released in 2023, the central government called for “enhanced efforts to stabilise production and ensure the supply of grain and other important agricultural products”. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has stressed the significance of food security and increased self-sufficiency – “holding the bowl safely in one’s own hand” – while also “developing ecological and low-carbon agriculture”.

Balancing this food security drive with the country’s emissions reductions goals will be a delicate task – one which experts suggest sits heavily on the plate of government and producers, and the policies and changes they choose to serve up. But consumers also have a seat at the table, and bottom-up action, such as Li’s efforts, could be transformational.

The power of the chef

Li came to understand the impact of the food system on biodiversity and climate during a cooking competition he took part in – and won – in 2020. The event was organised by Good Food Fund, a Chinese non-profit promoting the sustainable transformation of food systems.

Li, who had been a chef for nearly 20 years by then, was shocked to learn about the implications of industrialised farming and animal rearing for the planet. He also learned about how sustainable farming, cooking and dining could improve global ecology, tackle climate change and enable people to live more healthily.

“I had never thought that chefs could have so much power,” Li says. “I suddenly realised that I should do what I could to contribute to a better future for the Earth. I felt a sense of responsibility.”

In May 2021, Li and his business partner opened Bistro & Bowl in the popular tourist town of Dali. In one of the most biodiverse regions in China, the restaurant duly looks to follow the sustainability principles outlined in the Good Food Fund’s Good Food Pledge, an initiative that promotes a low-carbon lifestyle, healthy eating, seasonal produce and reductions in food waste.

Li grows more than 10 types of herbs in-house, including oregano and mint, fertilised using a liquid created with fermented food waste from the kitchen. The restaurant is also a certified participant of “Meatless Monday” through the Good Food Fund, which itself is the official Chinese partner of the global movement encouraging people to practise a plant-based diet one day a week, so as to improve personal health and the environment.

The actions taken at Bistro & Bowl are also real-life reflections of policies and documents released by the Chinese government, including an anti-food waste law introduced in 2021 and the latest dietary guidelines published in 2022 by the Chinese Nutrition Society, a national non-profit, under the guidance of the National Health Commission.

Although none of these directives were published with the direct aim of reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change, their combined results could bring climate-positive impacts, various experts have told China Dialogue.


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