Food waste: Are we biting off more than we can chew?

The economic cost of food waste is counted in billions of dirhams every year in the country.

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Rasha Abu Baker

Published: Tue 2 Nov 2021, 10:40 PM

Last updated: Mon 24 Jan 2022, 10:11 AM

From a young age, we are taught about the importance of food and how central it is to our survival. We learn that our taste buds develop as we grow and that at every stage of life, we can discover a new appreciation for food and the varied and complex layers of pleasure it brings us. We are also taught the etiquette of eating, the correct use of utensils, and to give thanks before and after each meal; taught to respect food and appreciate the effort put in to getting it from the farm to our table. We are also taught to think of the poor and the underprivileged, and how many people around the world are struggling to put food on their table — one of our most essential needs, second only to air and water

We even have special occasions each year to reflect on our blessings in having access to food — the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims (We say Bismillah and Alhamdullilah before and after each meal). Christians have Lent and say ‘Grace’ before eating. November each year sees Americans and others around the world celebrating Thanksgiving. On all these occasions and many others, food is celebrated, so the question now is why have I, and millions of others, forgotten all these precious lessons? Why is it that with so much respect and attachment for sustenance ingrained in us from an early age, do humans so carelessly waste tonnes of food on a daily basis?

We in the UAE waste an awful lot of food

An article in Khaleej Times during the last Ramadan made the worrying point that in the UAE, on average, each person wastes 224kg of food each year, which is more than double the figure for Europe and the US, according to the Food Sustainability Index 2020. During Ramadan, food wastage rises by up to 25 per cent.

Around 225kg! To put that into perspective, it’s equivalent to the weight of an upright piano. And during Ramadan, this rises to 280kg, which is equivalent to 280-litre bottles of milk. Imagine pouring that down the kitchen sink.

In the UAE, the economic cost of food waste is counted in billions of dirhams every year, and according to industry estimates, it could be as high as Dh12-13 billion annually, which breaks down to over Dh1 billion a month, or Dh250,000,000 a week or Dh35 million every single day. We need to start putting our food where our mouth is and take a lot more responsibility, teach our children and set an example.

Many countries have started to take a series of measures to control food waste and some perhaps can be learned from. There are shops and food banks in Europe where people can donate their ‘near expired’ canned goods for others to buy at a fraction of the price, like Wefood in Denmark. In 2016, France adopted a law on fighting food waste, banning supermarkets from destroying unsold food products at the end of each day and forcing them to donate to food banks and charities.

In the UK, the high street store Iceland is giving away food on its last day of shelf life to online shoppers in a new bid to tackle food waste. Under the initiative, if a fresher product of a customer’s choice is not available, Iceland staff may add one on its final shelf-life day to the order instead and the shopper will not be charged for the product. All chilled and fresh products, along with cakes and bread, are included in the scheme.

While Australia, Norway, Italy, Denmark and South Korea already have waste reduction plans, here in the UAE, we are beginning to embrace innovative approaches to the challenges of sustainable food production and the management of food waste. Concerns have taken on a renewed urgency in the recent past because of the Covid-19 pandemic which disrupted global food-supply chains and destroyed crop yields, Lord Udny-Lister, co-chairman of the UAE-UK Business Council, told a recent webinar.

Najla Al-Midfa, CEO of Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre, told the webinar that when it comes to the UAE, food waste sets the nation back by $3.5 billion on average every year. The UAE Food Bank, which was launched in 2017 to provide food to those in need and eliminate food waste, works with local authorities and local and international charities to create a comprehensive ecosystem to efficiently store, package and distribute excess fresh food discarded by hotels, restaurants and supermarkets.

But, without a very active general population doing their bit to help in reducing food waste, these efforts may not reach their targets. We, as contributors to the problem, must now be part of the solution.

There are many steps we can take as individuals at home, including, but certainly not limited to — losing our false sense of food security by buying only what we need, buying loose fruit and vegetables instead of pre-packed (which has the added bonus of using less plastic), teaching ourselves that left-overs still make a decent meal, not buying food because it’s pretty, buying it because it’s good value, and stop raiding the buffet to seize mountains of food that we can’t possibly eat, understanding that it’s called ‘all you can-eat,’ not ‘all you can throw away’!

There are still more things we can do, like making compost out of leftovers, and not throwing excess food away but giving it to neighbours or friends. I remember a friend’s mother who refused to buy any more food items until her cupboards were nearly empty, and always coming up with new ideas for what is left in stock. Make a point to use all ingredients in your home, cans, tins, and whatever is in the freezer or fridge to whip up a unique dish like a DIY cooking challenge.

A neighbour who is a food blogger has offered to send us leftovers from her cooking experiments and recently offered a gorgeous ‘steamed chocolate cake’. Sharing food is also a wonderful way to connect with neighbours. Avoid buying in bulk, as most vegetables in the bottom of the fridge will end up rotting; try to buy fresh for each meal if possible (Covid-induced grocery deliveries make this easy now), and be very wary of bulk deals like the ‘buy one get one free’ offers. Always check the sell-by-dates because a lot of the time the expiry date is near and stores lure unsuspecting shoppers into making unnecessary purchases which may also end up in the bin.

These are just some of the ways you and I actually can make a difference. With the UAE targeting net zero waste over the next 30 years, we have to start conserving resources now, because today’s wastage is tomorrow’s shortage.

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