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Home » Curbing MENA food waste through ambitious FLW initiatives

Curbing MENA food waste through ambitious FLW initiatives

by Mohammad Ghazal

The MENA has a food waste problem, with Middle Eastern nations, in particular, recognised as some of the world’s top contributors. In GCC countries, this largely happens at a consumer level. While in the UAE, the annual cost of food waste reaches $3.5 billion, with estimates that 38 per cent of food prepared daily is thrown away.

As a region grappling with food and water insecurity, this is not only a food accessibility issue, but it also feeds climate change. Food waste is responsible for 6 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with copious amounts of food ending up in landfills, rotting and decomposing, releasing methane, 25 per cent  more damaging than carbon dioxide.

As the climate crisis worsens, causing increasing disruption and destruction in the region, the MENA must address its food waste problem. Robust policy, wide-reaching initiatives and behavioural change are required to tackle the issue and enact change.

The cultural contribution

The United Nations Environment Programme’s ‘The State of Food Waste in West Asia’ 2021 report estimated that the Arab world wastes 25-50% of the food prepared during the Holy Month of Ramadan; in the UAE, this jumps to 60%.

Other social gatherings and celebrations, which often involve lavish displays of wealth and social status, are also massive contributors to food waste. One study found that, cumulatively, worldwide, Muslims waste 26.81 million tons of food in marriage ceremonies. Specifically, in Saudi Arabia, a nation that heavily relies upon imports and subsidised food, up to 70% of the food is wasted during special occasions and celebrations.

That said, the tides are changing. Recent years have seen growth in the number of couples choosing so-called ‘green weddings,’ which specifically prioritise zero waste, showing the impact that consumer awareness can have. Such weddings emphasise sustainability, replacing buffets with a la carte menus, implementing portion size control and donating leftover food.

Campaigning for change

There are a plethora of charities, NGOs and government agencies, which, having recognised the severity of the situation, are campaigning for change.

The UAE’s National Food Loss and Waste Initiative (ne’ma), for example, is transforming the nation’s food waste problem. Launched last year, the initiative is a collaboration between the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, the Emirates Foundation and the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court, and aimed at achieving the UAE’s target of cutting food waste by 50 per cent by 2030. With a particular focus on raising awareness about sustainable food consumption and food waste reduction to drive behavioural change, the initiative has already had a considerable impact. During Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), it helped around three tonnes of food waste to be collected and diverted from landfill, with 400 kg of food surplus redistributed and 1000 meals donated.

Speaking about the initiative, Khuloud Hasan Al Nuwais, Chief Sustainability Officer of Emirates Foundation and ne’ma Committee Secretary General, said it plays “an integral part” in spearheading and aligning the efforts of UAE stakeholders and the community at large to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of reducing food loss and food waste. Further, she highlighted that through its five key pillars, ne’ma wants to “create a movement to prompt individuals, communities and organizations” to:

●          Radically rethink their habits of handling food by raising community awareness,

●          Create a unified movement towards behavioural change,

●          Develop a UAE baseline and index to measure food loss and waste per capita,

●          Utilize technology and innovation to create and scale-up initiatives, and

●          Develop policies that create an enabling environment in the food waste ecosystem.

Elsewhere in Egypt, Dr. Moez El Shohdi, Founder & CEO of the Egyptian Food Bank, is campaigning to end hunger. A central pillar of his Food Banking model, which has been expanded to 52 countries so far, is food waste reduction. “We know that more than 35% of food produced is wasted, which negatively affects the economy and, of course, many families, especially when we know that in such cases, the waste is not only the food but also labor hours, water and energy; on top of that, waste harms the environment.” Based on the organisation’s substantial impact, the Dubai-based Food Banking Regional Network (FBRN) was created in 2013.

“After presenting the model in many countries, I was approached to be among professional committees to work on preparing “Food Waste Reduction Law,” to be launched in various countries and hopefully will be in all countries soon,” he said. Adding: “After implementing this program in 36 countries, we were able to save a monthly average of 112 million meals during the year 2022.”

Thriving Solutions, meanwhile, is a UAE-based sustainability and circular economy consultancy that has partnered with climate action NGO WRAP, to assist with its “Food Loss and Waste in the UAE” project. Dima Maroun, Co-founder of Thriving Solutions, explained the project aims to increase knowledge about food loss and waste (FLW) and adapt the tools to quantify greenhouse gases (GHG) associated with FLW in the UAE. Maroun outlined that there are “no current mechanisms in place” to measure waste to determine the extent and scale of the issue. “This initiative will help local operators calculate associated GHG to their wasted food. Increasing knowledge and awareness is the first step in curbing food waste,” she said.

The hospitality industry as agents of change

Recent research found that, specifically in the UAE, restaurants are the primary source of food waste, contributing 32% of the total. Buffets are a particular feature in many hotels and restaurants in the region. Yet, in 2017, research from the Masdar Institute found only 46 per cent of lunch buffet food was actually eaten. However, those within the industry are beginning to take heed of the need for change and striving to become agents of change.

Ne’ma, for example, has been assisting the industry with its transition, as seen its recent announcement of the ‘How to Reduce Food Waste Using Three Low-Cost Nudges – A Practical Guide for Canteens and Buffet Restaurants’ and its partnership with Accuro and BIT, which ran a trial to reduce plated food waste in UAE canteens. The latter prevented 1.7 tonnes of food waste, with projections that 17 tonnes per year would be saved if scaled across the seven cafeterias.

Likewise, Dr Moez El Shohdi’s organisation has targeted the sector with a range of food waste reduction initiatives, including collaborating with the industry to launch awareness campaigns, providing viable wasted food for orphanages and NGOs and donating leftover food to be transformed into animal feed. Elsewhere, the organisation assisted the Ministries of Tourism and Hotel Associations in approving the reduction of open buffet plate size from 32cm to 27cm, leading food saved from wastage to increase by 25% and the weight of leftovers reduced by 30%.

Change required at all levels

Initiatives like ne’ma demonstrate that the most effective strategies for tackling food waste target all levels: the government, the consumer, the producer and the private sector. Further, collective action is needed to cut food waste at the level required to safeguard the planet and food security. All levels of society must take accountability to overcome cultural and behavioural challenges.

Speaking about this, Al Nuwais launched a call for action: “As we approach Ramadan, we observe high levels of over-purchasing and food waste, and we invite you to turn this problem into an opportunity to be more conscious consumers and donate your surplus food to those in need,” she said.

“From grocery shopping with your family to a chef plating food at a restaurant, to celebrating and sharing Iftar with your loved ones – we all play a role and we call on everyone to be a champion of food loss and waste. Together, we can change our habits.”

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