In a recent visit to a neighbouring GCC country, while seated at the breakfast hall in the hotel, I could not help but notice the heaping portions of food piled high on the plates of some of the patrons.
That was fine until just before leaving I was distressed to see the amount of uneaten food left on their plates, soon to find its way to the waste container.
In the past, I would often remark that the food left on a single plate could help feed a small family for a whole day. Why I would keep wondering, don’t they just take what they think they could easily consume?
But such wastage is not just limited to breakfast buffets. Wherever unlimited food is offered, be it in hotels, wedding halls, or even cruises, the amount of wastage is something that always makes me cringe. Food is a basic necessity for human survival, yet it is disheartening to see that vast amounts of food go to waste every day.
This is not only a problem in Saudi Arabia but also in other countries in the region. It is also a problem in many other corners of the world where food is abundant.
According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the GCC countries generate around 11 million tons of food waste every year.
This is a major concern, as food waste not only leads to resource depletion and environmental degradation but also perpetuates food insecurity in a region where food imports are already high.
Why food waste occurs in the GCC?
There are several reasons why food waste occurs in Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, including overproduction and excess. With a rapidly growing population and a desire for abundance, many GCC countries are overproducing food. This leads to excess food that is either thrown away or left unsold.
There is also a lack of proper storage and transportation which in some cases contributes to food spoilage and waste. Many perishable foods, such as fruits and vegetables, require specific storage conditions to maintain their freshness, but these are often not available in some countries.
Consumer behaviour also plays a role in food waste. Besides the excesses on their plates at buffets, many people in the region tend to purchase more food than they need, leading to waste at the household level.
How often have most of us taken away rotting food sitting in the fridge or past due cans of food that have to be taken to the garbage dump?
The food supply chain in the GCC countries is often inefficient, leading to food waste along the way. For example, food may be rejected by customs agents, importers, retailers, or consumers because of minor cosmetic defects, even though the food is still safe to eat.
So why worry about a little food left uneaten on some plates? Well, some plates multiplied by thousands all over the world translate into millions of tons of food going to waste.
This waste has several negative effects on the environment, economy, and society in Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, which include the depletion of natural resources, such as land, water, and energy, used to produce the food that is ultimately thrown away.
There is something called environmental degradation as food waste generates greenhouse gases and contributes to climate change. When food decomposes, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Food waste also results in economic losses for both producers and consumers. Producers lose money on food that is not sold, while consumers waste their money on food that is thrown away.
High dependence on food imports
GCC countries which are highly dependent on food imports can ill afford food waste in the long run. With food waste, resources that could have been used to feed the hungry are being wasted.
Governments can work to reduce the overproduction of food by promoting sustainable agriculture and reducing waste in the production process, and improving storage and transportation facilities can help to reduce food waste by keeping food fresh for longer.
Also improving the efficiency of the food supply chain can help to reduce food waste by reducing the number of rejected foods and improving the distribution of food to those in need.
But in the final analysis, it rests with you the customer, or the consumer. You decide if stopping wastage is a priority for you or not and that begins with what you add to your plate or what you store in the fridge.
Besides helping yourself and your country, think of also how your efforts can go towards helping climate change. It will be all for the good of mankind.
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena