Launched in 2017, the UAE Food Bank works with government and charities to efficiently store, package and distribute excess fresh food discarded by hotels, restaurants and supermarkets Image Credit: Supplied

How often have we heard this from our parents: don’t waste your food, there are many children who cannot afford a single meal a day, or for days. The reason may be debatable but the concern is legit.

The food we do not consume may not necessarily reach the mouth of a hungry child; more often ends up in landfills.

Let’s pause to take a look at the stats. And they are terrifying: Rotting food waste can create methane – a greenhouse gas that is considered to be 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. One report says that wasted food accounts for 8 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

According to a report in the Washington Post, the carbon footprint of food waste in the US alone is greater than that of the airline industry! Which means, that the food wasted over a brunch could be more harmful to the environment than a trip on an airplane.

In effect, every half-eaten plate of biryani that you discard, every vegetable that is unused and that ends up in the garbage bin, every partially-eaten slice of pizza that you throw away, or even a ‘funny-looking’ apple you junk – can be considered as an indirect contribution to climate change.

The stats only get shocking: As per the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, a third of all food produced globally, worth a total of $1 trillion, is lost or goes to waste each year. The FAO explains food wastage as referring to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers- in simple terms, the food and drink that was once edible but thrown away due to ignorance or that was not consumed.

So it was no surprise that the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development decided to raise more global awareness on food loss and wastage by including it under the Sustainable Development Goals. Target 12.3 states that it’s important to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns,” and calls for halving per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030, as well as reducing food losses along the production and supply chains.

Action plans

In the UAE, these fears are not uncommon either. According to the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, food wastage costs the nation Dh13 billion ($3.5 billion) a year. On average, a person wastes around 225 kg of food each year in the UAE.

Experts at Dubai Carbon Centre of Excellence have noted that food wastage is estimated to be 3.2 million tonnes, with around 38 per cent of the food prepared daily in the UAE ending up being wasted.

“An average person in Europe generates around 1.2kg of waste a day. It’s almost double in the UAE with per capita waste generation being 2.7kg per day... Clearly this is something that needs to be addressed,” Ivano Ianelli, Senior Consultant – Sustainability at Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA), and earlier CEO of Dubai Carbon Centre of Excellence, has said.

In order to address this growing concern, the UAE has been consistently embracing ways to tackle this challenge, introducing new campaigns, initiatives and innovations.

The UAE Food Bank is one such initiative. Launched in 2017 to provide food to those in need and eliminate food waste, the non-profit charitable organisation works with local authorities and local and international charities to create a comprehensive ecosystem to efficiently store, package and distribute excess fresh food discarded by hotels, restaurants and supermarkets. During the recently concluded Gulfood exhibition, the Bank signed several strategic partnership agreements in a bid to continue strengthening their activities in reducing food wastage and distributing surplus food.

The agreements, which support the UAE Food Bank initiative in ensuring the efficient distribution of surplus food, were signed with, among others, Arab India Spices, Pure Food Processing Industries and Tanmiah Food Company.

“The UAE Food Bank plans to convert six of its branches into institutions that can train young volunteers to promote charitable and volunteer work in the community,” a media release said.

Another initiative is the UAE Food Waste Pledge where the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment calls upon the hospitality sector, which contributes more than 30 per cent of all food waste, to pledge to cut down on waste from their kitchens. The initiative was launched jointly with Winnow, a food-tech startup, whose solution facilitates companies signed up on the initiative in processing and measuring their progress.

There were several initiatives revolving around sustainability at the Gulfood 2022 to underscore UAE’s  pivotal role in driving global F&B sector change for the better with a deep-dive into the trends and techniques set to transform the industry for good.” The Gulfood Zero Waste is a global initiative with the goal of sparking dialogue and movement among policy-makers, industry leaders and communities to take a pro-active approach to adopting zero-waste initiatives, which can help end the discrepancies between food waste and hunger while playing a part in addressing climate change,” Trixie LohMirmand, Executive Vice President, Exhibitions & Events, DWTC,  said on the eve of Gulfood.

Businesses chipping in

While the government continues to work on initiatives and campaigns to raise awareness on food wastage and reduce the impact, businesses too are contributing to the cause.

Daniel Solomon, the founder of the ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetable delivery service EroeGo, believes that fighting food waste is something we must all do together – individuals, policy makers, governments, and private organisation; and not work in isolation. “The role of startups is crucial since there is an opportunity to rethink the broken system from a new perspective. This can be done by using technology that can help prevent waste before it reaches the supply chain. A less known fact is that 45 per cent of fruits with the suppliers does not even reach consumers, due to reasons including superficial beliefs that the product is ‘too small, ‘too big’, or ‘too ugly’. The simple step of promoting an avenue from farm-to-fork as well as defining produce seasonality can go a long way in solving food waste,” says Daniel.

EroeGo goes an extra mile to offer suggestions where its customers can find ways to reduce waste through simple planning and shopping routines. “Food waste is a global issue, but when we look locally, the issue of food waste is crucial. In the MENA region, individual food waste is 50 per cent higher when you compare with someone in the US or Europe. We can assume that the 55 million people who are hungry in the MENA region, shouldn’t have to be. This might not be the case in the UAE where most of us are fortunate. But when food is wasted, it has an environmental impact too as food waste is a major C02 emitter.”

Daniel suggests making a proper plan and shopping list before going to the store so as to prevent overshopping and reducing waste. Also, it’s important to learn how to store your fruits and veggies in the right place. Buying  supermarket fruit and vegetable rejects that are termed ‘ugly’ will also  help reduce environmental waste, he says. Each week, EroeGo provides shoppers with a storage guide to help be more sustainable.

Recently, Expo 2020 Dubai staged an event in support of the ongoing global ‘Stop the Waste’ movement of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Hosted by WFP in partnership with Talabat, it aimed to raise awareness on reducing food waste by engaging with restaurant partners. Food specialists shared insightful information and tips on practical methods to shop, store and consume sustainably to reduce food waste.

Launched in 2019 by WFP, #StoptheWaste is a global annual campaign aimed raising awareness on the wastage of edible food daily.

Spinneys too is doing its bit on food waste management. In a release to Friday, the company made it clear that it committed to Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which aims to halve the company’s total food waste by 2030. Spinneys also promises that no food fit for human consumption will go to waste, the spokesperson said.

“A range of interventions are under way to work towards this goal, including increasing volumes of food redistributed from Spinneys and Waitrose stores to deliver food to families in need in the UAE, composting, and repurposing high quality off-cuts into pre-prepared products. Food surplus from Spinneys’ production facilities is collected daily by the UAE Food Bank. To raise awareness of food poverty during last years’ festive season, Spinneys donated one turkey to a family in need for each turkey purchased from its frozen section.”

Since a large chunk of food waste occurs in the home, Spinneys aims to educate customers and communities on the benefits of reducing food waste through its Farm to Table school programme. Launched in 2021, the programme aims to help families understand the importance of healthy and sustainable consumption behaviours. Students are taught about the impacts of food waste including greenhouse gas emissions, and wasted resources. More than fifty private and government schools have registered to deliver the Farm to Table programme, the spokesperson added.

In 2021, Etihad Airways signed an MoU with UAE-based product development and design company The Concept to research and develop sustainable inflight technology to monitor food consumption. This is in line with the airline’s sustainability efforts and the drive for food waste reduction onboard its flights. The Concept was developed the NEOS Fly+, an inflight smart tray, one of the first IoT based in-flight technologies for trays. Reportedly, this technology will help collect data for the airline to understand food preferences of its passengers, and how it may be possible to reduce food waste. In the long run aims to provide data to reduce an industry wide food waste problem estimated to be around $3.9 billion per year.

Residents making the change

Even as major businesses are working to bringing about changes, there are plenty of residents too who are chipping in doing their bit to reduce food wastage. Dubai-based Victoria James, for instance avoids over-stocking her kitchen with food items, and buys only those items that she uses regularly. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are almost all gone in a couple of day’s time from when I purchase them, and I think this is helpful in having to avoid throwing out anything that’s old or rotten.”

Srini Kotamarthy, too, avoids overstocking. “As I live alone, I hardly ever buy low shelf-life food items like milk, unless I am expecting guests. I do confess, however, that I in most cases when I am eating out, I end up throwing away, the food I pack home. I admit, that is wasteful!”

Dr Fehmida Hussain does not believe in buying groceries in bulk, worried about the potential food waste that could happen.

“I am against buying groceries in bulk, especially perishables. Some may argue that buying in bulk could be cost effective, but I am willing to spend that little extra and making sure that food is not wasted,” she says.

She buys only for the week and because she does much of her shopping online, she does not have to make  multiple visits to the store.

Anushree Singh agrees. “I shop strategically to reduce food wastes from my household. Making a planned visit to the store once a week can help avoid buying things we don’t really need. I also strongly suggest opting for a la carte rather than buffets or brunches.”

For Deepika Shetty, reducing food waste is a constant learning exercise. “I make sure not to buy unnecessary items, those I am unsure of using within its shelf time, or if they are perishables, and only as much as needed for the week. I follow the similar principle when it comes to cooked food or while eating out. I feel there is no shame in taking back any extras that we cannot finish at the restaurant to have it the following day, or give it to someone who would have it and not waste it.”

Suzanna Varghese, another UAE resident, is also making earnest efforts to reduce her carbon footprint. “Awareness matters and the conscious thought that comes with this awareness. If we could spare a minute and give our consumption habits a second thought, we would most definitely find ways to avoid wasting food and be more resourceful,” she says.

So the next time we decide to over order when we have guests “just in case food falls short”, take a minute to pause and think about the above facts.

Like a wise influencer on Instagram said recently, if you care about someone then don’t over feed them.

Food waste stats in a nutshell

• Globally, $1 trillion worth of food is wasted each year

• Annual food wastage in the UAE is estimated at $3.5 billion

• Food amounts to 40% of the average household waste in the UAE

• One-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally

• 1.3 billion tonnes per year of food is wasted annually

• The cost of discarding food waste is approximately $410 billion annually

• More than 800 million hungry people worldwide

• The carbon footprint from food wastage is estimated at 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere per year

• Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes)

Sources: UNEP, FAO, Actionagainsthunger, Dubai Carbon

Tips to reduce food wastage

1. Support and buy local produce.

2. Shift to more greens than red – consume of more vegetables, fruits, and pulses compared to meat.

3. Shop smart and wise – Plan your meals and make a shopping list in advance to your shopping trip. This will help avoid buying in excess.

4. Store food appropriately – Try to adapt the FIFO system in your kitchen – first in first out.

5. Clutter-free your fridge and shelves – conduct a regular inventory to use up the produce and food items you buy and stock in your shelves. Another idea is to keep a little notepad stuck to the fridge door indicating the food inside, and when you prepared and stored it.

6. Pick the ‘ugly’ produce – they are edible!

7. Leftovers and doggy bags – don’t shy away from getting them home.

8. Compost – If possible, use vegetable and fruit waste to compost at home. Save the planet, and feed the plants! Home composting can potentially divert up to 150kg of food waste per household per year from local collection authorities, experts say.

9. Eat out responsibly – if you are a light eater, choose an la carte over a buffet or a brunch.

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