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The Middle East has a food waste problem. What are organizations doing to stop it?

According to experts, practice and culture aggravate food waste in the Middle East

The Middle East has a food waste problem. What are organizations doing to stop it?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a staggering one-third of all food is going to waste, citing that the GCC region is “among the biggest food wasters in the world.” 

In discussing the worrying figures, Tatiana Antonelli Abella, Founder and Managing Director of UAE-based Goumbook, says, “When we talk about food waste, aside from the environmental impact, we also need to evaluate the social impact.” 

“How many people worldwide don’t have food?” she asks. “This is where we have a problem. We over-consume and produce excessive waste.” 

According to Goumbook, leftover food valued at $4 billion is tossed into the garbage from homes, eateries, and large events across the UAE. In Abu Dhabi, food makes up 39% of all waste, up to 400,000 tonnes.

Things only get worse during Ramadan. “In Dubai, 38% of food is wasted, but this rises to a whopping 55% during Ramadan.”

The figures are similar in other countries. According to the UN, food waste forms up to 40-51% of the waste in Saudi Arabia, followed by paper, cardboard, plastics, etc . In Qatar, EcoMENA, a local sustainability advocacy group, estimates that about half of the waste in Qatar’s landfills is leftover food and that only a minimal portion of “discarded food is being composted, despite the short supply of good soil.” EcoMENA’s research also revealed that up to 25% of all food prepared during Ramadan is thrown away. 


The trends can be attributed to several reasons. Ahmed Mokhtar, Principal with Strategy & Middle East, part of the PwC network, believes that suboptimal farming systems, post-harvest practices, such as cold storage, handling, drying, as well as infrastructure, are causing significant food losses in the upstream phases of the GCC’s food chain.

“The lack of reuse or recovery options, coupled with the limited policies or regulations in place to manage food waste, make it easier to waste food than reprocess it in the region,” he adds. 

“Additionally, limited consumer awareness and the regions’ cultural trait of generosity and hospitality also result in additional food wastage downstream,” says Mokhtar. 

Roger Rabbat, Partner in Strategy & Middle East, part of the PwC network, shares the same sentiment. “Hospitality is a deeply ingrained cultural norm in the Middle East and is widely measured via the abundance of food, motivating people to buy food in bulk and prepare more food they can consume,” he says. “It is a well-established cultural tradition to provide an abundance even when there is little for the family to eat.” 

Rabbat adds that there is also a cultural aversion to consuming leftovers or reheating food. “Food that is not fresh is perceived as lower quality, hence is thrown away,” he says. “A widespread lack of awareness about the issue also contributes to significant food waste during festivals, weddings, parties, or informal gatherings.” 

Abella echoes the generosity ingrained within the Middle East culture, adding that this feeds into other sectors. “In the hospitality sector, compared to the rest of the world, buffets in Dubai, for example, are more luxurious. There is pressure for hotels and restaurants to have more and be bigger.” 


Despite these trends, Abella remains optimistic. “There has been quite a big change for the past couple of years. Government sectors have been working hard in the hospitality sector to implement sustainability standards. They push a lot under the food waste pillar for organizations to source locally and reduce waste. Such a framework supported by the government can help the private sector.” 

One such organization showcasing such proactive measures is BOCA. Omar Shihab, Founder, and Chief Sustainability Officer of the homegrown restaurant brand in Dubai, says, “When it comes to waste, we are a lot more serious in the role we play in the food industry overall. We are part of that value chain that includes farming, transportation, distribution, and retail, and, as a restaurant, we make up a large portion of that value chain. We know the numbers on food waste.”

Elaborating on ways they have integrated sustainability within their processes aside from a robust waste management plan, Shihab says they ensure their menu includes local ingredients. “We sent chefs to source local fish varieties based on the sustainability list published by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, which outlines fish varieties to buy every month of the year, keeping in mind the spawning seasons and tracing when the population is a bit more vulnerable.” 

Aside from being critical to reducing food waste, Abella says supporting local production is essential for food security. “During the pandemic, we had a big wake-up call because of supply chain disruptions,” she says. “In the UAE, since we import so much of what we consume, the food security alarm bell came out.” She says the situation underlined why communities need to produce more food locally and consider food something precious.


Other critical initiatives have come up over the years. HeroGo is saving ugly food and vegetables and selling them at a lower price, raising awareness that they can be consumed and are just as nutritious. 

“We must remember that food that ends up in the landfill leads to methane and greenhouse gases that play a huge role in climate change,” Abella says.

Goumbook has partnered with HeroGo and UAE Food Bank to provide nutritious meals to low-income communities. Abella explains that the UAE Food Bank is responsible for redistributing the food targeting low-income families and labor camps. “We contact them to say we have 1000 meals, and they would know where it is most needed. It goes to all the emirates such as Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm al Quwain.” 

Goumbook also partners with the Dar al Ber Society to distribute dry food, such as rice and lentils, that would otherwise be thrown away or with three months left. “It’s a great way to help families. They receive a pack for the week or two for families of three or four,” Abella says. 

As businesses and startups disrupt the local food ecosystem, playing an essential role in ensuring food is not wasted, Abella says, “We place a strong focus on awareness. You feel more responsible and engaged and want to take action on what happens in your city or country.”  

And this will only become more critical in the years to come for big and small businesses to adopt more sustainable processes. “It’s easier to see bigger companies adopt, but I hope to see more SMEs leading the way,” she says. “It doesn’t cost a lot. It’s about having a strategy. In many cases, it might even help save money.”

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