First-ever UAE household survey reveals how residents eat, waste food

About 85 per cent of residents consider food waste an important national issue and think reducing it is vital to national food security

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Ashwani Kumar

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Published: Tue 19 Dec 2023, 8:06 AM

Last updated: Tue 19 Dec 2023, 10:44 PM

More than half of the UAE residents are finding it difficult to avoid food waste, according to the first-ever national household survey carried out across seven emirates.

In the UAE, about 40 per cent of prepared food is wasted annually at the cost of Dh6 billion. Separately, the UN Environment Programme noted that 61 per cent of food wasted globally is at a household level. Thus, a nationwide study titled: ‘How the UAE eats’ was commissioned to learn about food waste behaviour among the UAE’s residents.

From June to September, Ne’ma – the national food loss and waste initiative, in partnership with the UAE’s Behavioural Science Group, carried out a survey collecting responses from as many as 6,083 residents, including citizens, expats, high and low-income individuals, and specific groups like chefs and domestic workers. The findings from the survey are aimed at helping Ne’ma design an ideal policy to reduce food waste by 50 per cent by 2030.

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“Food loss and waste is a global problem, not just a local one. One-third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, while close to 800 million people go to bed hungry every day,” Khuloud Al Nuwais, Chief Sustainability Officer at Emirates Foundation and Ne’ma Committee Secretary General, noted during the recently concluded COP28.

Khuloud Al Nuwais, Chief Sustainability Officer at Emirates Foundation and Ne’ma Committee Secretary General
Khuloud Al Nuwais, Chief Sustainability Officer at Emirates Foundation and Ne’ma Committee Secretary General

Awareness to reduce waste

According to the survey, 57 per cent of households think that throwing away edible food has a high negative impact on the planet. And there is an appetite to cut waste.

“The nation knows that food waste is a problem,” Rasha Attar, Director of the Behavioural Science Group at the Office of Development Affairs, said while giving details about the findings.

About 85 per cent consider that food waste is an important national issue and think reducing it is vital to national food security. Most residents believe that individuals and the government have an important role to play here. As many as 87 per cent of residents think everyone has a responsibility to minimise their food waste.

Rasha Attar, Director of the Behavioural Science Group at the Office of Development Affairs
Rasha Attar, Director of the Behavioural Science Group at the Office of Development Affairs

Why is food waste still high?

About 67 per cent of citizens and 55 per cent of expatriates said they find it difficult to avoid food waste.

“This is because it’s not just about making that one decision like switching to an electric vehicle, but it’s a series of complicated behavioural decisions that we do every single day, multiple times per day,” Attar underlined.

While residents enjoyed eating out and ordering in, most individuals had no clue how it would lead to food waste. As many as 57 per cent of residents reported ordering takeaway meals more than once a week. About 38 per cent said to order multiple meals for an occasion, and 53 per cent said to take home leftover food with them.

“Many people order more than is needed,” Attar said.

The survey found that at home residents are more likely to waste fresh produce than meat and seafood. The most commonly wasted items are bread and bakery items (36 per cent), vegetables (34 per cent), and fruits (31 per cent).

“Meat and seafood are less likely to be wasted. And that’s some good news. Meat and seafood have higher carbon footprints than other waste items,” Attar pointed out.

What about shopping habits?

Well, high food waste in the UAE may be partly due to shopping habits with half of the respondents reportedly buying during special offers and in bulk. Even though 60 per cent of people said they do some sort of planning like writing a list of things to buy, but when they reach stores they get tempted. A startling 25 per cent of people said to be buying food without knowing what to use it for.

“We discovered that households lack the right information on how to reduce food waste,” Attar said.

For example, 65 per cent of respondents reported checking ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates before purchasing food, but only 16 per cent knew what these labels meant.

“This lack of understanding is likely to lead us to throw away more food than we actually should or throw away items that could be consumed without any harm,” Attar underlined.

No options to segregate, donate

Households didn’t find it easy to do things like segregating or donating food because of the lack of available options. About 63 per cent of respondents said they don’t segregate because there is no easy way to do so in their area.

However, residents showed high levels of support for different solutions, like the introduction of food waste collection by municipalities. A whopping 77 per cent supported the introduction of food waste collection by municipalities, 75 per cent backed inspections of businesses and restaurants to ensure they are not wasting food, and 71 per cent supported timely prompts on food delivery apps with quantity recommendations.

“This survey underscores the importance of looking at problems through a behavioural lens, considering that changes in behaviour could potentially reduce global emissions by 40 to 70 per cent by 2050,” Attar added.

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