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The future of food: In the battle against waste, UAE leads the charge

Sudeshna Ghosh

Published: Updated:

“Our entire food system is out of whack,” says Dan Barber, one of the world’s foremost chefs campaigning for ecologically produced food, who runs Blue Hill at Stone Barns, ranked No.11 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, on the sidelines of the gala event held in Melbourne earlier this year.

It may be a strong statement but if anyone knows what they are talking about, it is this passionate chef - he also happens to be a member of Barack Obama’s President’s Council on Nutrition - who launched a food waste-focused pop-up restaurant concept, WastED, in 2015, where gourmet meals were created entirely using ingredients that would otherwise be thrown away.

His goal was to provide some perspective about the fact that one third of all the food produced in the world (about 1.3 billion tons) is thrown away, across the entire life cycle from agricultural production through to human consumption.

If you consider this sobering statistic in the context of a third of the world’s population being starved or malnourished, then there remains no doubt that this is a broken system indeed. Food waste is also responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions.

The issue becomes even more pressing in this region, where, due to climatic and geographic conditions, supplies are largely reliant on imports. And yet, food wastage here is rampant. In the UAE, it is estimated that annually, 3.27 million tons of food, worth almost $4 billion, goes into landfills. In Dubai alone, 365,000 tons of food is wasted over one year.

Food security

However, efforts are being made here both at macro and micro levels to tackle the issue. With food security emerging as the third most resonant topic at the recently 2017 World Government Summit recently held in Dubai, the UAE government seems to be taking a proactive approach, such as with the setting up of the UAE Food Bank. One of its first initiatives is facilitating the redistribution of excess food from hotels to the needy, via hubs housed in repurposed containers, in partnership with local charities.

In fact, the global hospitality industry alone is responsible for over US$100 billion worth of food waste yearly. These statistics are what led tech entrepreneur Mark Zornes to set up Winnow, a smart solution for hotel kitchens.

Ingenuous in its simplicity, the Winnow app, which is physically connected to a bin on a weighing scale, helps cooks measure exactly how much leftover food is being thrown out every day, with just a few taps of a button. This data is then analyzed to provide critical information on wastage patterns that then helps reduce waste exponentially - resulting in both cost reduction for the business, as well as, of course, contributing to the greater good.

Successfully rolled out across Europe and Asia, Winnow is now in use in over 30 hotels in the UAE, and counting. One of the first hotels to have adapted to the technology, Pullman Dubai Creek City Centre Hotel & Residences reported reduction of food waste by almost 70 per cent in a few months, leading to annual savings of $20,000.

Ramadan food waste

This is probably most pertinent right now more than ever, as, in this region, Ramadan is a period when food waste doubles thanks to lavish hotel buffets and a general habit of over-consumption. Citing behavior change as the key to addressing food waste, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment Dr. Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoud has urged people to be more mindful, particularly during the holy month.

“We need to work together to find creative ways to address food waste. Much of this will have to come from changing our behaviors,” he said.

One Dubai resident who seems to be certainly taking that advice to heart is sustainability blogger Amruta Kshemkalyani, who recently launched a campaign #zerowasteuae, to share her personal journey of trying to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle, as well as build awareness. As the saying goes, it may be a drop in the ocean, but then, every drop counts.