This month, the world is observing Earth Day, the most significant global environmental movement that brings over a billion people together to do their bit and calls everyone to Invest in Our Planet. Among other issues, food waste is a major concern affecting Earth. This global issue has garnered more attention in recent years due to its environmental impact and implications on food security.
Occurring at every stage of the food supply chain, from production to consumption, food waste results in significant resource waste, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), nearly one-third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted each year, totalling 1.3 billion tonnes of edible consumption.
Food waste significantly impacts the environment, with the production and transportation of food contributing to excess greenhouse gas emissions. Estimated to produce 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, which is equivalent to 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, food waste leads to the loss of resources, such as water and land, used in food production, which exacerbates the problem of resource scarcity and puts a strain on the planet’s resources.
In the Middle East, food waste is a growing concern, with the UAE producing an estimated two million tonnes of it annually. This is a worrying trend that calls for immediate action from all stakeholders. Besides this, the cost of food waste in the country is estimated to be around Dh 13.2billion (approximately $3.6 billion) annually. Globally, this figure is estimated to be approximately $1 trillion.
Waste not, want not
Thankfully, the UAE government is aware of the importance of addressing food waste and has launched various initiatives to reduce wastage and promote sustainability. The UAE Food Bank, founded in 2017, collects surplus food from hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets and distributes it to those in need.
The Food Bank has since distributed over 50 million meals to the less fortunate, thus reducing the amount of food that goes to waste. In 2020, the government launched the “Food Waste Challenge,” a national campaign that aimed to cut food waste in professional kitchens by 50%.
Additionally, the government’s “Save Food, Feed the Nation” campaign seeks to increase awareness about food waste and encourage people to adopt more sustainable food practices. Furthermore, the UAE government has introduced AI technology in the hospitality sector to monitor food waste.
Smart approach to zero waste
One of the best ways to reduce food waste and promote sustainability is to localise food production and grow food at home. The UAE is one of the leading countries in the region embracing such practices, achievable through innovations in agricultural research and development, which includes boosting urban farming, community gardening and high-tech solutions such as vertical farming.
The country is also stepping up its efforts to develop sustainable housing solutions like Sharjah Sustainable City, where we focus on encouraging residents to reduce food waste and offer them facilities such as urban farms and biodomes with vertical farms to grow and harvest fresh produce within the city.
To make urban farming more effective, we also conduct community engagement programmes to raise awareness and share knowledge about local food security, food waste and urban farming practices. These efforts not just boost sustainable farming and reduce food waste but also support broader efforts like the UAE food security strategy and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, whose Goal 12.3 aims to halve food waste and reduce food loss by 2030.
In addition, reducing waste has implications for promoting food security while also providing economic benefits. By reducing food waste, the UAE could realise annual savings of around Dh4.4billion (approximately $1 billion). Promoting sustainable agriculture and food production systems will also help the country reduce its dependence on imported food, improve food security and contribute to the local economy as well.
Individual actions count
In addition to government initiatives, individuals can make their own contributions toward reducing food waste. Such steps may include reducing food orders, buying only what you need while grocery shopping, purchasing what may look like “imperfect” produce rejected by most supermarkets, meal planning and prepping, storing food correctly, using leftovers creatively, donating excess food and composting organic waste. These measures have the potential to significantly reduce food waste and promote sustainability.
Food waste is a pressing issue that concerns us all. It not only affects our environment but also impacts our ability to feed ourselves and others who are less fortunate than us.
The UAE government’s commitment to promoting sustainable agriculture, smart waste management and reuse initiatives has helped address the issue.
With the country declaring 2023 as the Year of Sustainability and hosting its biggest climate event, COP28, later this year, there will undoubtedly be more awareness about the subject that would spark behavioural change among more and more individuals and industries to make sustainable choices to reduce food waste.
Still, individual contributions toward reducing food waste are also critical to promoting sustainability and food security in the country and beyond. Through innovative solutions such as urban farming and community gardening, we can build a more sustainable and responsible food system, help ensure that our Earth remains healthy for future generations and that nutritious food is accessible to everyone.
Yousif Ahmed Al-Mutawa is the Chief Executive Officer of Sharjah Sustainable City