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Tackling The Middle East’s Food Waste Crisis

Tackling The Middle East’s Food Waste Crisis

According to one survey, wasted food in the region totals billions of dollars per year, but growing awareness changing habits

A movement is gaining steam in the Middle East to combat growing food waste, which also translates into wasted money—to the tune of billions of dollars every year.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, approximately 250 kilograms of food per person—the equivalent of about one-third of overall production—is wasted annually in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), worth a total value of $60 billion. These numbers are especially disconcerting considering the region already suffers from a scarcity of natural resources and relies heavily on global food imports.

Analysts have noted that advanced countries in the region have a higher rate of food wastage, perhaps because their populations are better off and can afford the associated losses. Qatar, for example, is one of the wealthiest countries in the world but according to EcoMENA, a Qatar-based organization that promotes sustainable development, the oil-rich Gulf nation wastes more food than any other state in the Middle East.

“The Middle East is infamous [for] unsustainable food consumption patterns,” Salman Zafar, founder of EcoMENA, told The Media Line. He cited rapid population growth, increasing consumerism, lavish lifestyles and inefficient waste-management systems as prime factors for the phenomenon. “As per current trends, food waste is expected to rise steadily in the coming years,” he added.

Nevertheless, Zafar believes that government intervention, stricter laws and faith-based initiatives can help raise awareness of food waste in the region.

A report produced by the FAO revealed some surprising information, including that food waste, on a global scale, produces as a by-product the equivalent of more carbon emissions than every country on the planet besides the United States and China.

Accordingly, Zafar explained, the public’s increasing concern about climate change is helping push the subject of food waste to the forefront of the Middle East’s collective environmental consciousness. A recent YouGov survey found that over 80 percent of residents across the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are aware of the negative impact of food waste, with more than three-quarters of them already “taking action.”

Furthermore, 83% of respondents said they would gladly give their leftovers to those less fortunate if given the opportunity. In fact, organizations have emerged around the region to provide this service, such as Qatar’s Wa’hab, which means “to give” in Arabic.

“The abundance of food [served in hotels] made us wonder, what happens if nobody eats that food?” Shahid Abbusalam, co-founder of Wa’hab, asked rhetorically while explaining to The Media Line how the idea for his organization materialized. “Qatar has one the most stringent laws for food security, making people scared to give away food, scared of the consequences if someone gets sick.”

Wa’hab, created in March 2017, collects surplus food from wedding parties, banquets and restaurants, and donates it directly to people in need.

“We are starting to get noticed,” said Abbusalam.

Wa’hab’s breakthrough came just months after its inception at the annual food festival in Qatar, where over five days its volunteers produced for the poor about 4,500 meals exclusively from leftovers. This year, the organization officially partnered with the festival and collected more than ten thousand meals.

“Our army of volunteers worked through the night to collect all the food,” Abbusalam proudly noted.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, where millions of people live in poverty and nearly 20% of the population suffers from food insecurity, a group of young computer engineers created an app called “Wasteless Egypt.” The app allows a user to input the foods he or she wants to donate and then the technology connects the individual with the nearest person in need.

Both Wasteless Egypt and Wa’hab have partnered with local food banks. “They guarantee that the food given away is healthy for consumption and not harmful for the people we care about,” Assem Abdelwahab, Operations Manager for Wasteless Egypt, told The Media Line.

The rate of food waste, somewhat counter-intuitively, increases during Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar marked by a daily sunrise-to-sundown fast which is then broken with feasts. Food demand increases by up to 50% because of the lavish fast-breaking Iftar meal, but leftovers are generally not consumed because the fast resumes the next day.

In Qatar, analysts estimate that almost half of the food prepared during Ramadan will be thrown away. In Egypt, explained Abdelwahab, the percentage of food waste jumps to 60% of the total amount of food produced during the annual observance. The amount wasted for the entire year in Egypt is 30%.

“We want people to be better consumers, focusing not only on people who are already socially aware, but on those who do not even care,” said Abdelwahab. “I want to create incentives, give them value, and a reason to use the app.”

In this respect, Wa’hab’s representatives give talks to raise awareness about food waste and also promote green initiatives in local high schools and universities. They also collect organic waste that cannot be donated, turn it into compost and donate it to gardens and farms.

“Some of these steps may stem the tide of food waste in the region,” Zafar from EcoMENA concluded.

(Atara Shields is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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