Finish what's on your plate and let's talk about food

To stem wastage at source action needs to be taken at every level of the food chain

Producing enough food for a growing world population is an urgent global challenge. Nearly 10 per cent of the global population – an estimated 768 million – were under nourished in 2020 due to Covid-19 disruptions. And the challenges don’t end there: climate change is making farming harder in many places, even as the global population is set to grow by over two billion to 10.9 billion by the end of the century.

So we must produce a lot more food, and find ways to do it more sustainably, seeing as a new study shows that the food sector generates around 35 per cent of global human caused greenhouse gas emissions.

These many challenges require a broad range of solutions. For starters, a new study published in the science journal Nature says global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods. An obvious starting point for consumers and producers alike is to hasten the transition to a more plant-based diet.

The climate crisis is here and is threatening our global ecosystems. As an engineer, I see the value of adopting new technologies to increase plant-based consumption. Vertical farms, lab-grown meat, and hydroponic techniques are all much better, more efficient, and, in the long run, cheaper ways of growing food.

We are fortunate that the UAE is harnessing advanced technologies such as AI, robotics and machine learning to generate sustainable local food production as part of UAE’s National Food Security Strategy 2051. The launch this year of Dubai’s Food Tech Valley, which seeks to triple the UAE’s food production while ensuring sustainability and conservation of resources was another important step on this journey to smarter food production.

The UAE is harnessing technologies such as AI, robotics and machine learning to generate sustainable local food production

The UN estimates that 17 per cent of the food produced globally is wasted every year, which amounts to 1.03 bn tonnes of food. Consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 ml tonnes). Here in the UAE, every person wastes an average 224 kg of food each year, according to the Food Sustainability Index 2020. This is a major issue. Most of this waste ends up in landfills creating large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

There are solutions to this issue, and the UAE is exploring many of these as it aims to cut food waste by half by 2030, in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goal to achieve zero hunger by 2030. Digesters encourage the anaerobic digestion of food waste, processing waste for composting and creating value through future use in clean energy or agriculture. These could be utilised on a much larger commercial scale where food is consumed, such as hotels, restaurants and airports.

There is also a need to stem wastage at the source through community initiatives to raise awareness. Basic education around portioning, behavioural change when it comes to consuming day-old food, and buying habits would all contribute to positive changes.

Consumers can also play their part by, for example, engaging with hotels on their policy toward buffet waste. The aim is not just to reduce waste but to ensure that whatever is thrown away is properly sorted to allow for more efficient treatment and future use.

DUBAI - JUNE 20,2009 - Arabic dish are serve at Sezzam restaurant in Malll of the Emirates which offer a weekly buffet. ( Paulo Vecina/The National ) *** Local Caption ***  PV Sezzam 6.jpgPV Sezzam 6.jpg

Action is needed at every level of the food chain, from production to the end consumer. For this reason, New York University (NYU) is a signatory to the Cool Food Pledge, a commitment to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by 2030.

This pledge encompasses all dining facilities at NYU’s global campuses including Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). And in doing so, NYU joins over 30 other global organisations serving over 800 mn meals annually.

To accomplish this goal, we are currently incorporating the EAT-Lancet and Menus of Change frameworks into our dining principles, emphasising a variety of sustainability objectives. These efforts include featuring vegetarian and vegan options, and running educational and awareness programmes and initiatives to teach students how to make healthy, planet-friendly choices. We are also working with faculty members to conduct research that will help us understand how to encourage responsible and positive choices around food consumption. And we are setting targets that will enable us measure, monitor and minimise food waste from our dining facilities.

At the NYUAD campus, we are also looking to develop a community garden, to educate and to encourage the development of native species. This garden will play a multipurpose role, sending the message that responsibility for the way we grow and consume food lies with everyone.

Published: November 1st 2021, 12:27 PM
Antonios Vouloudis

Antonios Vouloudis

Antonios Vouloudis is director of sustainability and stewardship at New York University Abu Dhabi