Food Waste Not, Want Not in the GCC
Cultural tendencies often lead to large amounts of food going unused but this is slowly changing
The recently released report by Ernst & Young and HSBC titled “Food for the Future” says that Saudi Arabia wastes an estimated 427 kilograms per person per year, in contrast to Europe and North America, which discard between 95 and 115 kg on average per person annually.
Saudi Arabia is not alone, as food waste is particularly problematic in Gulf countries.
In the United Arab Emirates, for example, food waste has been estimated at 197 kg per person annually.
“Many studies show that the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries are global leaders in food waste,” Dr. Tarek Ben Hassen, assistant professor of policy, planning and development at Qatar University, told The Media Line. Ben Hassen is co-author with Hamid El Billali of the recently published systematic review, “Food Waste in the Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.” El Billali and Ben Hassen quote a variety of studies showing a wide range of estimates of food waste in the GCC. One shows Saudi Arabians wasting between 165 and 511 kg of food per capita annually. Another says that in Qatar, per capita food waste amounts to 584 to 657 kg per year.
Ben Hassen argues that the main factors contributing to high food waste are ignorance, undisciplined food shopping without grocery lists, restaurants and social gatherings.
Dr. Mohamad Ghassan Abiad, associate professor of food processing in the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences, American University of Beirut, and lead author of another systematic review, “Food Loss and Food Waste Research in the Arab world,” contends that food waste is a societal problem throughout the region.
“Food waste is big in all Arab countries as it’s mainly due to the culture; they like to put more food on the table because it is linked to being generous,” he told The Media Line.
Abiad explained that food waste increases at large gatherings, such as iftar meals during Ramadan and weddings, as food at these events is often served buffet style. Restaurants and hotels are major sources of food waste on their own, but buffets compound the problem.
“They tend to replenish the buffet to keep it looking full so people are encouraged to take more, and a lot of [customers] put too much on their plates that they don’t end up eating,” Abiad said.
He also argues that traditional eating habits among diners augment food waste.
“Those that serve in more of a Mediterranean style where dishes are shared have more waste than a Western type of menu where you can order individually and take it home if you don’t finish,” Abiad said.
Food security, financial loss, and environmental harm, Abiad says, are the largest problems with food waste.
Most food in the GCC is brought in from abroad. The region is highly dependent on outside sources for nourishment. When food goes to waste, these countries experience a financial loss both in terms of the cost of importing food and the additional cost of disposing of it.
Aside from the financial loss, food waste harms the environment. Often left in landfills, the unused food creates methane, a greenhouse gas. In addition, food production has a large carbon footprint that, when thrown out, was all for naught.
“Getting food to people requires utilizing many resources: water, energy, land, labor, transportation, packaging … [which is also] being thrown away when food goes uneaten,” Abiad said.
This, of course, is on top of the human cost of food waste. Unused food could have gone to those in need. While the Gulf countries are well off, according to El Billali and Ben Hassen’s review, the party responsible for food waste often depends on the country’s wealth.
“In high-income countries, such as those of the GCC, food is to a large extent wasted at the consumer level. … However, the findings of different surveys highlight that household food wastage is also a serious issue in middle-income NENA [Near East and North Africa] countries … such as Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia.”
In poorer countries, food waste is often at the production level.
Most of the uneaten food in the NENA region, which encompasses the GCC, is fresh produce, fish and roots.
To curb surplus food, Gulf countries have started government-affiliated programs.
“There are a lot of different initiatives like food banks, first started between 2018 and 2019, to reduce food waste in the Arab world, particularly the GCC, where food is gathered and redistributed right away,” the American University of Beirut’s Abiad said, noting efforts made in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.
Abiad also says that the novel coronavirus has helped reduce the amount of food going unused and that some of the changes made will continue after the pandemic.
“With coronavirus, there are less shared dishes and eating out, in general, has decreased,” he said. “There is now a ‘new normal’ under coronavirus. I think it will change things in the long run in terms of eating habits and food waste.”