The UAE is fortunate today to be one of the most food-secure countries in the world, despite its heavy reliance on food imports as domestic food production is constrained by water scarcity, high temperatures and limited arable land. As a global trade hub, we have access to a variety of food products from around the world and a wide range of eating options is available throughout the country.
Yet, often times, we do not finish the food on our plate or spoil meat and vegetables stored in our fridge. Reasons vary — it may be that the serving portion is too big, ordering too much, unplanned bulk shopping or forgetting the expiration date.
Whatever the reason, wasted food is bad for both our economy and the environment. It means that we are wasting our precious natural resources — especially groundwater used for local vegetables and fruit production, which has very little recharge rate and is getting rapidly depleted. And costs of food imports go in vain when food products end up getting wasted. The UAE Food Bank estimates that food wastage costs the UAE economy around Dh13 billion annually. Furthermore, food that ends up in landfill emit methane, which is more potent than carbon dioxide, and adds to global warming.
But the issue of food waste is not unique to the UAE; it is a global challenge. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that as much as one-third of food produced is lost or wasted throughout the value chain, from initial agricultural production, processing, transportation, storage and all the way to final consumption. Globally, this wastage amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year and around $2.6 trillion, including social and environmental costs, and accounts for about 8 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, around 795 million people around the world (1 in 9) remain undernourished, when there is sufficient food being produced. This is why, the United Nations has set a target to halve global food waste by 2030, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all countries in 2015.
So what should we do here in the UAE? We need to work together to find creative ways to address food waste, particularly during Ramadan, when we often observe an increase in food wastage, although figures vary. A study conducted by the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology — based on a survey of 45 hotels — found that only 53 per cent of iftar meals are eaten. During a recent pre-Ramadan food waste awareness raising event organised by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE), in cooperation with food waste solutions company Winnow, leading hospitality industry representatives discussed the importance of better accounting of food waste generated in kitchens. Weighing and tracking of waste have in some cases resulted in reductions of more than 50 per cent and facilitated better planning. The industry is also moving towards a la carte services over buffet services to reduce wastage. It would be great to see expansion of such efforts and innovative approaches throughout the country.
We also need to work to re-distribute food that is not needed, but is safe to consume. The launch of the UAE Food Bank earlier this year under the patronage of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Makoutm, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is a great initiative to help us reduce food wastage and support people in need by re-distributing surplus food, especially in view of the Year of Giving. Many others are also working in food re-distribution, including the UAE Red Crescent’s “Preservation of Grace” initiative, Dubai Chamber Food and Beverage Manufacturing Business Group’s (FMBG) “Wafaa” initiative and community-led initiatives such as “Ramadan Sharing Fridges”. MOCCAE recently launched the “Fish Box” initiative to collect and re-distribute donated fish from fishermen and fish stalls including confiscated fish to those in need, through partnerships with local entities, as part of our contribution to the Year of Giving.
Another important factor for reducing food waste is changing our behaviours — how we grow, shop, prepare and consume food — will all have to change. We need to be conscious and wise producers, sellers and consumers of food to minimise waste, which will have co-benefits of saving costs — both economic and environmental. Adequate and nutritious food consumption also provides health benefits and avoids health-care costs.
For all this to happen, it is essential to raise awareness at all levels through innovative initiatives and programmes. For example, under the Sustainable Campus Initiative of the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi, a youth-led initiative Green Majlis helps to educate restaurants about food waste and connect them with livestock farmers to turn food waste into compost and animal feed as part of their community outreach activity. But behavioural changes take time, so starting early is important. That is why MOCCAE is donating “Grow Gardens” to a total of 28 schools in all seven emirates, which is a module to educate children about growing food, through which we hope to foster our future generations’ appreciation for food and become wise consumers. Similarly, Dubai Municipality has installed composting bins in all schools in Dubai to turn food waste into compost used in school landscaping, which also helps with awareness raising.
On the industry side, FMBG is working on raising awareness by encouraging the adoption of the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard, a global standard to track food loss and waste generated in the supply chain, as findings could help companies to take strategic measures to reduce wastage. They are also developing a food data and information-sharing platform to reduce excess food production while meeting demand, and aims to contribute to the UAE Food Bank by re-directing products before expiration.
At the policy level, prevention and reduction of food waste will be an important pillar of the UAE’s forthcoming strategy on food diversification. In cooperation with relevant UAE stakeholders, and with technical support from FAO, MOCCAE is currently developing the strategy in a holistic manner, to address the whole food value chain to ensure long-term food security of the country, including imported and domestically produced food — all the way to disposal.
Innovative ideas and technologies will help us make a difference, but simple actions also count, like ordering only what we can eat, turning leftover food into another dish, or buying produce that may not be in perfect shape or size. Let us work together to take proactive measures to always prevent and reduce food waste and share with those in need, especially during Ramadan, in line with the spirit of the holy month and the Year of Giving.
Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi is the UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment.