A UAE official has said fines could eventually be imposed on households generating high levels of food waste in an effort to encourage more responsible consumption.
Khuloud Hasan Al Nuwais, who heads the UAE's food loss and waste initiative, Ne'ma, said making people pay for how much they waste may be the only way to change attitudes to a pressing issue of global concern.
Ms Al Nuwais, secretary general of the body's national steering committee, said the scale of food waste in the Emirates was "deeply distressing".
Ne'ma – which translates to "blessing" in English – estimates Dh6 billion ($1.63 billion) of food is wasted in the Emirates annually.
Each person in the UAE wastes an average 224kg of food each year, according to the Food Sustainability Index 2020, almost double that of figures in Europe and North America.
“I don’t believe that the right approach is to immediately start enforcing fines, but it is coming," Ms Al Nuwais told The National.
"If you start paying a fee based on how much waste you generate – like water and electricity – only then will you start becoming conscious about how much food you are wasting.”
Ne'ma was established in March 2022 to co-ordinate government agencies, the private sector, non-government organisations and society to reduce food loss and waste across the supply chain.
The campaign aims to support a nationwide drive to reduce food waste by 50 per cent by 2030.
Ms Al Nuwais cited the UAE's hospitable culture as a contributing factor.
“I do find it deeply distressing,” she said.
“As the head of this initiative, I am acutely aware of the distressing situation in many regions around the globe, where food insecurity is a significant concern and thousands of people are struggling for food and water.
"The reality is that vast amounts of food are wasted globally, while millions face hunger and malnutrition. This stark contrast between food excess in some areas and scarcity in others serves as a reminder of the urgent need for effective waste reduction strategies.
"This is a matter of humanitarian priority and moral responsibility."
Mariam Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, and Minister of State for Food Security, this week said the UAE’s household waste needed to be addressed in a briefing held ahead of the Cop28 climate conference.
“Households have a huge role to play,” she said.
“Sometimes we lose ourselves in how we are being very wasteful.”
In June, the Emirates Red Crescent signed a partnership with Ne'ma to reduce food waste in the UAE.
Under the agreement, the two organisations will work together to collect surplus from restaurants, food outlets and the hospitality sector to redistribute it to the less fortunate.
Tracking the food chain
Ms Al Nuwais said Ne’ma was assessing the causes of food waste across the food supply chain - from farm to fork.
“One of our main focuses now is on tracking data – how food is being wasted by hotels, restaurants, households, supermarkets and the different sectors, beginning with the producers and ending with the consumers.
"Unfortunately, until recently, the UAE has not been tracking how much food is being wasted."
She said households were the biggest culprits, with an estimated 60 per cent of all food being thrown away on average.
“We envision that the numbers could be higher than the global average because we have such a hospitable culture,” she said.
Ne'ma is to launch a pilot programme to educate the public and businesses on how to limit food waste.
“Sadly, some businesses find it easier and less costly to throw away food and these are the sorts of behaviours that we want to change.”
The authority is focusing on changing consumer behaviour by encouraging people to buy according to their needs and not in bulk.
Diverting food waste from landfills – which exacerbates the climate-change crisis due to the amount of extra greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere – is another priority.
“We don’t want to raise awareness only, but we want people to take action and we have approached that in a scientific way where we are trying to change certain settings – by introducing a behavioural nudge to encourage people to adopt new norms or habits,” she said.
These “nudges” include encouraging restaurants to use smaller plates for food buffets and brunches to reduce portion size.
“In a perfect world we would have zero food waste and I do believe that for a country as ambitious as the UAE, with a Ministry of Possibilities, this is possible," Ms Al Nuwais said.