The Middle East has a food waste problem. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “an estimated 1/3 of all food produced globally is lost or goes to waste,” and the GCC region is among the biggest culprits.
One of the worst offenders in the region is Saudi Arabia, with up to 40 to 51 percent of food wasted in the Kingdom each year, followed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where 38 percent of the food prepared every day is discarded.
“We have a very generous culture in the Middle East,” says Tarek AlKhoury, Regional Coordinator for Climate Change at the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) West Asia Office.
“We like to show our generosity by showing a big variety and big quantity of the food, which is one of the major reasons of the food waste,” he told Al Arabiya English.
More than 60 percent of the food waste occurs at the household level, and an average person throws away up to 163 kilograms of food each year in Arab countries, according to UNEP’s “The State of Food Waste in West Asia” report.
The issue reportedly heightens during the holy month of Ramadan. The average per capita waste generation of 2.7 kilograms per day gets doubled to 5.4 kilograms in the UAE during the sacred month, leading to a whopping 60 percent increase in daily food waste, according to the Dubai Carbon Centre of Excellence.
In Qatar, which imports 90 percent of its food, almost half of the food prepared during Ramadan finds its way into garbage bins, according to estimates from EcoMENA, a sustainability advocacy group in the Middle East.
According to UNEP’s research, food loss and waste are responsible for 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It consumes 25 percent of the global freshwater, costing the global economy nearly $1 trillion annually.
If food waste were a country, it will be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas after the US and China.Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
In discussing the deeply worrying numbers, Menna Shahin, founder of the Egypt-based Tekeya app, which brings unsold meals to people in need, says she is more concerned about the social impact of food waste.
“It’s well known that we produce enough food to feed 1.5 times the global population. But still, thousands of people remain hungry today. This explains a lot about the food waste issue,” she told Al Arabiya English.
The inspiration for Tekeya partly came from the Ramadan rituals of donation, but it was the massive food wastage in the Middle East’s most populous country Egypt that led Shahin to launch its operations in Cairo in 2019.
The app has partnered with dozens of restaurants in the Egyptian capital city to take care of their unsold food. Personal users can order the eatables via the app for half the price, to be delivered to them or to the food bank or charity of their choice.
“In terms of our impact, we have saved at least 150,000 meals and food items from being tossed away in the bins since our launch,” Shahin said.
If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it
Quantifying food waste, especially in the hospitality sector, has been a major challenge in the Middle East, says Asrar Damdam, founder and CEO of biotech startup Uvera, which is headquartered at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.
“We need to be able to measure the food waste, and it is still quite a black box. The United Nation’s food waste report published in 2021 has good estimations, but the accuracy is not very high because it’s very difficult to know the waste of the hospitality sector,” she said.
“This is very important because we can’t improve what we can’t measure,” she added.
Uvera has developed a unique ultraviolet (UV) light-based technology called FoodLine that claims to tackle two issues with one single device.
First, it increases the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by an average of 97 percent and meats by 33 percent in just 30 seconds, helping households save up to $1,800 per year.
Secondly, users will be able to track and report their food waste with the product’s integrated technology, which can be scaled on a national level, according to Damdam.
With a wave of positive feedback for the startup in the region, Uvera will soon launch its prototype in Saudi Arabia to reduce per capita waste at retail and consumer levels, Damdam told Al Arabiya English.
With scarce food resources and climbing concerns from food wastage, governments in the region have launched several initiatives in the past few years to address the problem by putting pressure on the hospitality and retail sectors.
Alongside a national baseline for measuring food waste, Saudi Arabia has launched a National Program to Reduce Food Loss and Waste during Ramadan, which costs the Kingdom nearly $11 billion annually, an extensive awareness campaign under the slogan: “With frugality, it lasts.”
“So far, only Saudi Arabia has created a concrete food waste baseline that is showing exactly the amount of food wasted and what type of food wasted and where it is wasted,” said AlKhoury from UNEP’s West Asia Office.
“We’re trying to replicate this experience with other countries. Now we are aware that UAE has also started to do that,” he added.
In line with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3, of reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030, the UAE has launched a National Food Loss and Waste Initiative (Ne’ma) to influence “behavioral changes needed to adopt more responsible consumption” in the country.
Several big chain hotels in the region are also implementing activities to reduce their food waste.
For instance, during Ramadan 2023, UNEP collaborated with HILTON in the Green Ramadan 2023 initiative through trainings, artificial solutions, and menu engineering that led to an average of 61% reduction in the food waste at the post-consumer stage, equivalent to saving 8,600 meals, and preventing almost 4.8 tonnes of waste and over 14 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Responding to Al Arabiya English on whether all such initiatives and government frameworks are working, AlKhoury said he remains optimistic and that “there is a lot of interest from regional actors and stakeholders now to tackle the food waste issue than it was ever before.”
“I think all these measures are working. But still, we have a very long road ahead of us.”