As well as coming last of the 34 countries in the 2017 Food Sustainability Index (FSI) in terms of sustainable agriculture, the UAE has also been ranked 34th and last in terms of how much food is wasted.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has, however, said the figure used, of 2.7 kilograms of food waste per person per day, may not have been the appropriate statistic to use.
Equating to waste of 986kg per person annually, the figure comes from a Dubai carbon statement from last year, but is thought to apply to total waste, not just food waste.
Nonetheless, food waste is a major concern in the Emirates, and this reflects a problem in the Arab world as a whole.
All seven Arab countries in the FSI performed poorly on food waste, with the highest placed, Saudi Arabia, in 22nd position.
“There’s a lot of work going on in the UAE regarding food waste. People are aware of this. They’re vocal when there’s food wastage. They talk about it. That’s the right step towards finding solutions,” said Habiba Al Marashi, chairperson of Emirates Environmental Group.
The issue requires “concerted effort” and initiatives “at a national strategic level,” she said, adding the UAE government was already focused on it. Nationally, officials have said that, by 2021, there should be a three-quarters cut in food thrown away.
Earlier this year, thanks to the backing of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives, the UAE Food Bank was launched. Companies and restaurants can donate food to be given out to low-income workers or families. Ms Al Marashi praised this “step in the right direction”.
Many restaurants and hotels are switching from buffets, which lead to large amounts of food being thrown away, to à la carte menus or smaller buffets.
Some leftovers are being put to good use, though. At the Cave Rotana in Ras Al Khaimah, they are sent to a composter before fertilising the hotel grounds. The authorities in RAK want three-quarters of waste to be diverted away from landfills by 2021.
The FSI category where the UAE performed best was nutritional challenges, where it came 12th.
The country outranked other Arab nations because fewer children suffer stunting and wasting from poor diets, and there is a lower rate of micro-nutrient deficiencies.
Nonetheless, the survey highlighted obesity as an issue, with 68 per cent of the country’s adults overweight.
Saudi Arabia came 32nd for nutritional challenges, although the proportion of its adults who are overweight, at 70 per cent, is only slightly higher than the UAE’s.
An FSI statement said that “a high and rising level of obesity is a major problem in both countries”. The FSI suggested educational campaigns and measures such as taxes on high-sugar drinks.
In the Arab world in general, it said a key issue was a shift to high-fat and low-fibre diets, coupled with poor levels of exercise.
Dr Ayesha Al Dhaheri, chairperson of the Department of Nutrition and Health at UAE University in Al Ain, said awareness of obesity-related issues was high, but people were not acting on this.
“You can be aware that smoking will harm you, but still people smoke. The same goes with saturated fats and high salt intake,” she said.
“We did some surveys about the consumption of salt and prevalence of hypertension. People, they say, ‘I know salt can cause hypertension,’ but still they consume salt.”
Although the FSI found that people in the UAE were less likely to lack nutrients than residents of the other Arab countries surveyed, Dr Al Dhaheri said there were concerns about low levels of certain micro-nutrients. In particular, she highlighted iodine deficiency, because although salt consumption is high, iodised salt is not being used.
Also, she noted that vitamin D deficiency was a concern, particularly as some residents have little exposure to the sun because of modest clothing.