‘The food you choose and the way you consume it affect our health and that of our planet. It has an impact on the way agri-food systems work. So you need to be part of the change’, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a statement ahead of World Food Day, which each year falls on October 16.
In Kuwait, the humongous amount of food that ends up in landfills may be socially acceptable to many, but it is morally and ethically reprehensible, Times Kuwait states.
The food waste generated each day also runs counter to the country’s stated aim of adhering to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that Kuwait signed on to at the United Nations in 2015.
Goal 12.3 of the SDG aims to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses, by 2030. But with more than 1.3 billion tonnes of food or nearly a third of global food production, wasted worldover each year, and with only eight more years until the SDG deadline, neither Kuwait nor the world appears anywhere close to achieving this target.
To place the amount of food wasted globally in perspective, imagine going to your local supermarket or cooperative store and buying three bags full of food and then nonchalantly tossing one bag into the nearby dumpster. Inconceivable, right? Statistically, this is the equivalent of what happens to global food production — one-third of all food produced for human consumption ends up wasted.
If tossing one out of three bags of food in the trash appears unimaginable to you, then we suggest taking a walk down any residential area in Kuwait at night. If not the stench, then the sound of bawling cats ferreting for food will lead you to the sight of trash bins overflowing with enormous amounts of food waste. Entire cartons of fresh fruits and vegetables, unopened cans and packets of food items, and take-out trays with uneaten portions of pizzas and other fast foods will be seen to spill out from the bins and trash skips placed by pavements.
Even more sadly, if you happen to look out of your window in the early morning hours when dumpsters come to pick up trash, you may be staggered by the sight of people rummaging through trash, picking up edible items from the previous day’s food waste. While the notion of individuals scavenging for food in a prosperous country like Kuwait may seem preposterous, it only underlines the wide disparity that exists in the country between the haves and have-nots.
Even if the food collected from waste bins is not for the collector’s consumption, some of it could end up in illegal open food markets in the suburbs, where there are buyers for these items among the large expatriate worker population that live there. Either way, it is a sobering thought to ponder on World Food Day.
Food waste in Kuwait is nothing new; it has been a socially acceptable phenomenon, probably starting when oil wealth began seeping into the country. Many people waste food out of ignorance about quality and safety issues, throwing out unopened food containers because it is past its ‘Best before date,’ or because of discoloration or over-ripeness of fresh fruits and vegetables. While this form of food waste can be easily curbed through better awareness programs, there are also a handful of snobs who consider the amount of food wasted, especially after a party or religious festival, to be an indication of their wealth and social status.
Access to food products worldwide at prices that are negligible relative to income that results in food costs forming only a tiny portion of monthly household budgets is probably another reason why there is so much food wastage in the country. In addition, the prodigious food subsidies granted to citizens by the state, including for many basic food items such as rice, chicken, lentils, milk powder, and sugar, as well as heavily subsidized items from the government-owned Kuwait Flour Mills, leads to very little appreciation for the value of food.
Understanding the true scale of food waste is essential to target solutions and drive policy and process interventions by the authorities. But unfortunately, there is a significant dearth of accurate data on the amount of food waste generated in the country. Although there are a few peer-reviewed studies on the subject, the latest dates back to 2012. Perhaps the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) or the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Kuwait University will undertake a more accurate and detailed study on Kuwait’s amount of food waste.
In the meantime, the government periodically presents its reports on the topic to international entities, such as the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with most of the data being based on estimates and guesstimates. Nevertheless, relying on these government reports and its own approximations, the annual UNEP report, ‘Global Food Waste Index 2021’ estimates that almost 400,000 tonnes, which is equivalent to around 95kg per capita of food waste, is generated each year at the household level in Kuwait.
The food waste index for 2021 also reveals that annual household food waste in Bahrain topped the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states at 132kg/capita. This phenomenal waste in tiny Bahrain also placed the country among the top ten worst waste generators globally. At 105kg/capita Saudi Arabia came in the second spot, while Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait, each respectively wasting 95kg/capita, were jointly in the third position in the GCC. However, even the UNEP expressed skepticism on these results and said it accorded only low confidence in the data provided.
With the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, where the UN organization was provided with greater detail by the authorities, the index ranking of other states should at best be considered tentative. Moreover, the per capita wastage only tells part of the story, as the figure can be skewed in favor of countries with larger populations. On the other hand, a figure expressed in total tonnes of waste generated would, in general, favor countries with smaller populations.
Irrespective of per capita waste figures or total tonnage of waste generated annually, the amount of waste generated places tremendous pressure on the region’s limited natural resources, environment, and climate. To measure the amount of food that goes to waste and understand where the waste is happening in the food supply chain, analysts distinguish between ‘food loss’ and ‘food waste.’ Food loss refers to any food that is discarded, incinerated, or otherwise disposed of in food production, storage, and transportation. On the other hand, food waste refers to food that is discarded at the level of retailers, foodservice providers such as restaurants, and at the consumer household level.
Both food loss and food waste undermine our food systems’ sustainability, as all resources used to produce the food, including water, land, energy, labor, and capital, go to waste. In addition, the disposal of food loss and waste in landfills leads to greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change. Estimates suggest that 8% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with not consumed food. Food loss and waste can also negatively impact food security and food availability and contribute to increasing the cost of available food.
Figures from United Nations entities such as UNEP and FAO reveal that around 14 percent of food produced globally is lost at the production stage due to inadequate harvesting, storage, and inefficient packing and transport. A further 17% is wasted at the retail, foodservice, and consumer level. Data from 2019 also show that while food available for consumption was around 5.4 billion tonnes, food waste accounted for around 931 million tonnes (17%). Of this waste, retail accounted for 13%, food services for 26%, and households for the remaining 61%.
Breaking this down further, reports show that of the total 121 kg per capita food waste per year globally, retail accounted for 15 kg per capita, food services for 32 kg per capita, and households were responsible for 74 kg per capita. Clearly, households are responsible for the largest portion of waste generated globally, and we, as individuals, need and should act urgently to reduce our household footprint on the planet.
Increasing awareness programs, promoting sustainable lifestyles, and empowering the younger generation are effective strategies that could be pursued by the authorities here to impact food waste at the consumer level positively. Stricter laws against food waste could also be contemplated at the retail level, such as the one prevailing in France, where the law requires retailers and foodservice providers to redistribute edible food to food banks and charities or face heavy fines and possibly jail terms for the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, in what is certainly a praiseworthy development in Kuwait, civil society appears to be waking up to the reality of the enormous food wasted at the retail, foodservice, and household level. More importantly, some people are actually doing something about it. Non-Government Organizations (NGO) such as the Kuwait Food Bank and youth ventures such as Refood have launched initiatives aimed at tackling the issue of food waste in the country.
Refood, a local non-profit company founded in 2014, confronts food waste at the retail level in Kuwait. It offers solutions to excess food at the end of the supply chain, providing suppliers an opportunity to hold accountability for their excess foods rather than sending it to landfills. Suppliers collaborating with Refood control the quality assurance of products until it reaches Refood, where the products are then identified, sorted, and packaged into baskets. Refood assures suppliers of a quality-controlled system to handle all excess products, and customers have ensured food that is perfectly safe to consume. Refood aims to reduce food wastage in Kuwait’s food and beverage industry by providing a food basket subscription delivery service to qualifying customers.
Refood provides ample opportunities for volunteers on a regular consistent basis to create awareness and power operations. Refood centers its mission on having a measurable environmental, social, and economic impact as it has proven to be an innovative solution to one of the most wasteful parts of the FMCG industry’s supply chain. Initiatives such as Refood will hopefully encourage others, including the government, civil society organizations and individuals, to help reduce food waste at the retail and household level and prevent huge amounts of waste food filling landfills at an alarmingly rapid rate. They even help thousands of families through sponsorship opportunities at the individual and corporate levels, in which every member of society can contribute by supporting, volunteering, and participating.
Creating more landfills to meet the increase in food waste is certainly not a sustainable solution. Health authorities, the municipality, social activists and residents in areas bordering landfills in Kuwait have long pointed to the deleterious health aspects and environmental impact of landfills. Besides the stench, potential fires and a breeding ground for pests and diseases, landfills also contaminate groundwater supplies, and the toxic gases released from these sites include methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in harming the atmosphere. However, with limited land, the prospect of shifting waste dumping sites to even further locations is becoming increasingly unrealistic in Kuwait.
On a related note, there have been frequent calls for the country to attain self-sufficiency in food. While this could indirectly cut food loss sustained in transportation and reduce the cost of importing foods, attempting self-sufficiency in food is not a practical prospect in arid places like Kuwait. Currently, local agriculture production in Kuwait is nowhere close to helping the country achieve self-sufficiency. In most cases, agriculture farms are hobbyist ventures by affluent Kuwaitis who hold on to subsidized land by producing a nominal amount of food items for sale at assured prices to local cooperatives. Meanwhile, the few farmers who actually engage in food production barely produce enough food to sustain their business, let alone help the country achieve self-sufficiency.
Underlining this inability to achieve self-sufficiency, the Central Bank of Kuwait in a presentation to the Council of Ministers earlier this year, revealed that when it came to food self-sufficiency, or the ability of the country to maintain food consumption in times of crisis, Kuwait and the region in general ranked very low on the global index.
The low ranking is essentially the result of the region’s overwhelming dependence on food imports to ensure the nation’s food stability and security. Importing food products at a high cost and then subsidizing it, often to below cost levels, to pamper citizens, who then promptly toss a large amount of it into the trash, is not a viable or sustainable option for Kuwait or individual households.