The UAE is embracing innovative new approaches to the challenges of sustainable food production and the management of food waste, according to experts.
Food security and waste have been critical global issues for some time. But the concerns have taken on a renewed urgency in the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a result of which global food supply chains have been disrupted, and crop yields have suffered, said Lord Udny-Lister, co-chairman of the UAE-UK Business Council.
He spoke during a webinar hosted by the council to discuss ways to manage food and food waste across the supply chain and prevent the global food industry from damaging the environment.
“Technology and innovation will undoubtedly be the solution to addressing the food-waste challenge, as well as boosting food security so that nearly 1 billion people who currently go very hungry have a more reliable supply of food in the future,” he said.
Najla Al-Midfa, CEO of the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center, said: “In the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, reports show that we waste up to 250 kilograms of food a year per capita. And when it comes to the UAE, food waste sets us back an average of $3.5 billion every year, with an average person wasting about 197 kilograms of food per year,” she said.
The UAE Food Bank, which was launched in 2017 to provide food to those in need and eliminate food waste, works with local authorities and local and international charities to create a comprehensive ecosystem to efficiently store, package and distribute excess fresh food discarded by hotels, restaurants and supermarkets.
“The UAE’s hospitality sector, which contributes more than 30 percent of all food waste, is stepping up its efforts, with the key players in the industry taking up the UAE Food Waste Pledge to fight food waste in their kitchens,” Al-Midfa said.
The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center is also partnering with Etihad Airways on a pilot program to introduce in-flight meal trays that use smart technology to collect data on how much food passengers waste when they fly.
“Recording food preferences helps the airline industry reduce food waste, an issue that costs the industry about $3.9 billion every year,” Al-Midfa added.
Lord Benyon, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said there is the potential for a great amount of synergy between the UAE and the UK in the global food industry, and that authorities in Britain aim to reduce food waste by 20 percent by 2025.
Trade between the countries was worth more than £15 billion ($20.9 billion) last year, £3 billion less than 2019 as a result of disruption caused by the pandemic.
Essam Sharaf Al-Hashimi, the head of Dubai Municipality’s Food Trade Control Section, said the city is completely dependent on imported food, with almost 8 million tons shipped in each year.
In 2015, almost 16,900 tons of imported food was rejected and ended up in landfill. By 2016, this had been reduced to 13,586 tons, and by 2020 to a little over half a ton.
Claire Hughes, director of products and innovation at British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, said the UK food industry has set a target to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2040, while also reducing water use, increasing recycling, and reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030.
She said Sainsbury’s is working on developing electronic price labels on shelves and a digital system that will automatically reduce prices on food items close to their expiration dates, something that currently has to be done manually.
Martin Wickham, a food and drink investment specialist at the UK Department of International Trade, said 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted worldwide each year, which costs the global economy about $1 trillion.
However, food waste contains numerous chemicals that have a wide range of potential commercial applications, he added, and many small startup businesses are making real inroads in this area.
He predicted that we will see the development of a very different environment for the consumption, production, and transport of food and how we deal with its waste.
Khalid Al-Huraimal, the CEO of Emirati environmental-management company Bee’ah, said up to 38 percent of food is wasted in the UAE, and this figure rises to 60 percent during Ramadan.
“Today we have achieved a diversion rate away from landfill of 76 percent, which is the highest in the Middle East, and once our waste-to-energy plant is commissioned later this year, we will be close to hitting zero waste going to landfill,” he said.
He added that one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030, and the UAE is committed to achieving that target. Bee’ah has also launched programs to educate communities on the importance of segregating waste. The company is also planning to implement its strategies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Al-Huraimal said the pandemic has made people more aware of the challenges relating to sustainability and climate change.
Ignacio Ramirez, the managing director of Winnow, a company that helps businesses reduce food waste, said wasted food is three times worse for the environment than single-use plastics in terms of carbon emissions, but the issue is considered taboo.
He said Winnow helps its clients save $42 million a year in food waste, equivalent to 36 million meals, and about 10% of that is in the UAE.
Sean Dennis, the CEO of UAE-based online marketplace Seafood Souq, said almost half of all caught seafood is wasted in developing countries and about 25 percent in developed countries.
“It’s probably the most highly valuable, highly perishable item that is traded globally that we consume,” and one of the most important sources of income and health, he said.