Saudi Arabia, like several neighbouring nations, imports 80 per cent of its food.
As with many countries worldwide, a large amount is thrown away – but the kingdom is trying to tackle the issue.
Reducing waste entails a change in both personal and commercial outlooks, experts say. "We need a cultural shift in how we perceive food waste; in Arab culture, you are miserly and inhospitable if you try to conserve food," Tarik Ismail, executive director of Savola Group, a leading Saudi food conglomerate, tells The National.
In real terms, an estimated 70 million Saudi riyals (Dh68.55m) worth of food is trashed every day – at the household level, Mr Ismail says.
That’s equivalent to 8 million meals a day, or 1.65 million tonnes of food annually going to landfills from domestic kitchens.
A growing number of groups are working to tackle the issue. One is the Saudi Food Bank, the biggest among about 30 such facilities operating in the country.
Founded in Dammam in 2011 and known as Eta’am (Arabic for “feeding”), it distributed 7 million meals from 2015 to 2017, with 20,000 beneficiaries last year. Globally, this is not an uncommon conundrum: every day about one third of all food harvested is lost or thrown away. Annually, this means 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The group has launched initiatives on preventive action: the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for instance, sets targets for responsible consumption. These include cutting food waste by half and eradicating hunger by 2030. Saudi Arabia has committed to these targets as a signatory to the SDGs to tackle what a 2016 Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition study found was some 427kg per person per year of food being wasted in the kingdom.
Big business is taking notice of the country’s efforts to reduce wasted food. In October, Dow Saudi Arabia Company, a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company, and Eta’am signed an agreement for the promotion of food waste reduction, food preservation and healthy eating in the kingdom.
The partnership aims to conduct a pilot educational programme at schools in Jubail in the Eastern Province to increase awareness among the younger generation of the importance of food waste reduction, food preservation and healthy eating, and to promote the use of healthier products by homes and restaurants for healthier diets and to reduce obesity.
“With this partnership, we are reaching out to the young generation to educate them against food waste, and we will be pushing further on the awareness side in future programmes with Dow to promote and enable more healthy food practices,” said Abdullah AlFozan, chairman of Eta’am.
Eta’am attracts numerous volunteers, says Aamer Alburjes, the chief executive of Eta’am Riyadh. “Particularly in Ramadan we have so many volunteers, we are not able to accept all,” he says.
One such is Alanood Almasoud, a supervisor-volunteer at Eta’am Riyadh, who started working with the food bank in 2014, “inspired by the professional operations of the foundation as well as the fact that it simultaneously tackles two major issues in Saudi society: food waste and hunger”, she says.
Eta'am, a non-profit organisation, mainly obtains untouched, prepared food from hotels it has agreements with, says Ms Almasoud. Staff pack buffet leftovers into single-serving meals, meeting international food standards, she says. Meals are labelled with packing date, contents and source.
“We make sure that we prepare balanced meals that look like something we would like to eat ourselves,” she says. Meanwhile, the Savola Negaderha (Arabic for “we value this”) programme is working to promote the cultural shift Mr Ismail says is critical for better food management.
As well as on-the-ground efforts, the programme’s online platform also outlines tips around food storage and using, instead of discarding, leftovers. The project is a partnership between the Savola Group, Eta’am, the UN Environmental Programme and Waste Resources Action Plan (Wrap). According to Savola, the aims of the Negaderha project are: obtaining an in-depth understanding of the drivers, actors, and volumes of food waste at a national level; putting up an action plan for change in food waste generation; engaging consumers in reducing food wastage by promoting campaigns based on the most effective global experiences; and creating a framework for tracking food waste data and measuring progress towards the final strategic objectives. Negaderha tackles food waste issues on different levels that include three modules targeting two main segments of society: households and the Horeca (hotels, restaurants, and cafes) sector. Such initiatives are beginning to address sustainable food management. But while social, environmental and spiritual motivations to curtail food waste have existed in Arabian culture for centuries, some local experts say until food waste management is more robustly regulated businesses will continue to waste food. Perceived cultural barriers might be another problem, says Mr Ismail.
“For us as a company, we need to be careful in how we pursue food waste, because if we push for too much too fast, it will negatively affect our sales,” he says.
He says such concerns currently result in nearly 50 per cent food waste from retail store shelves of fresh goods such as bread, meats, fruits and vegetables. If the supply chain team tries to better manage inventory and stocking, Mr Ismail says, the company's worry is that consumers will not return to its grocery stores if they feel offerings and supplies are even slightly limited.
Hence some critics dismiss the SDGs as an ideal that is perhaps too ambitious to achieve. But cutting food waste by half can be accomplished through small steps that create immense impact, say experts.
Such steps are intuitive and simple – and sometimes little more than good old planning.
“The two main drivers of food waste are that we buy too much and let it spoil and that we cook too much and have leftovers,” says Liz Goodwin, senior fellow and director of food loss and waste at the World Resources Institute, and a former chief executive of Wrap.
Modern living is perhaps at the root of food waste in general, says Marc Zornes, the founder of Winnow Technology, a London start-up whose technology promises to halve food waste in commercial kitchens.
“We shop based on sales, not what we need – and we have lost the skill of cooking from our refrigerator.
"Research shows people lack sufficient knowledge of food handling, storage and use," he says.
The solution seems simple, and reducing waste in the food industry is an inherently uncomplicated task in any part of the world. Small steps have the potential to not only save significant cash in ever-tightening economic times, but also to bridge the world’s colossal food inequality.
Currently, 25 per cent of the food lost or wasted globally could feed 870 million hungry people.
In the hospitality industry, data is key. “Targets need to be set, then food quantities measured – this will lead to action,” says Ms Goodwin. While data is available on food waste generated in the region, macro-level numbers, no matter how startling, will not lead to change until quantification is done on-site, she says. Property-specific data will not only highlight the role each individual must play, but also specify precise actions each kitchen team must take.
“When you have the right data on food waste you can make a significant dent in what is wasted,” Mr Zornes says. “It really is a number of small changes that add up to a big impact,” he says, and high-tech can help.
Winnow's smart scale, for instance, helps kitchen staff record food waste and provides personalised analytics to make the changes necessary to cut food waste within kitchens.
Winnow has a number of clients in the kingdom expected to start using the technology later this year, and more in the region. “Businesses can cut their food waste by 50 per cent – and consequently 3 to 8 per cent of overall food costs,” he says.
The Champions 12.3’s research shows that each dollar invested by companies in monitoring and reducing waste, training employees, improving storage facilities and changing food packaging generates up to 1,400 per cent returns.
The Champions 12.3 is a coalition of executives from governments, businesses, international organisations, research institutions and civil society, supported by the Netherlands government and the World Resources Institute.
Conducive policies, internalised awareness and a little bit of creative commitment can go a long way in cutting food waste by half and in realising ambitious ideals regarding waste for businesses and households alike – in the kingdom and globally.
With additional research by Nayma Hasan
Khadeeja Balkhi is a sustainability advisor and business journalist