Food for thought: Why do we waste so much food?

by  — 23 December 2015

About one-third of the food produced around the world goes to waste every year – and Qatar is among the biggest culprits. Given that the country has to import about 90 percent of its food, why are we throwing so much of it away? asks Sybrandus Adema.

Food wastage is a huge issue in Qatar. In 2012, the last year for which there is recorded information, a massive 1.4 million metric tonnes of food was consumed and wasted in Qatar. This figure, divided by the then population of 2.05 million, equates to an average of 636 kilograms (kg) of food per person for the year, or 1.74 kg per day. Given the benchmark of two kg per person per day (preferably nutritious fare that does not contain too many kilojoules), that does not sound too excessive. But if you remove the young, elderly, short-term visitors/workers and people who consume less than two kg per day from the equation, it is clear that much more than two kg per adult is either consumed or wasted. This only compounds the country’s rapidly growing and expensive obesity problem.

Added to the wasted food are the litres of bottled water and soft or hot drinks that are consumed every day. The average Qatari resident uses 675 litres of water per day (drinking, washing and waste), at a rate double that of the average European.

Over and above the 1.4 million tonnes of wasted food, an additional 14 percent – representing nearly 20 million kilograms – is also discarded or destroyed before it even reaches the Qatari end-consumer. This food is either past its sell-by date or spoilt due to problems with the cooling chain. On one hand, this is due to a lack of effective agricultural planning, and decades of environmental degradation (after all, even the local fish industry is but a shadow of its former self). But on the other hand, Qatar’s growing and increasingly affluent population means that money is no deterrent in terms of the quantity and quality of food demanded. Huge banquets, often with expensive exotic food, are commonplace, and Qatar is the fastest-growing food consumption market among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

According to data published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2014, the average local inhabitant wastes up to 250 kg worth of food per year, compared to just 70 kg in other regions. But while Qatar as a country, and the Gulf as a region, are among the biggest culprits, food waste is a global problem. Nearly 30 percent of all food fails to end up in someone’s mouth, and if the total worldwide food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest CO2 offender on the planet.

The Middle Eastern ecology activist group EcoMena estimates that about half of the waste sitting in Qatar’s landfills is made up of leftover food. The combination of the country’s very high consumption rate and very low recycling rate, mean that mountains upon mountains of food are being dumped. Furthermore, only a minimal portion of this discarded food is being composted, despite the short supply of good soil. EcoMena’s research shows that up to 25 percent of all food prepared during Ramadan is eventually thrown away – even at a time when the distribution of leftover food to the poor is traditionally at its highest.


Getting to the bottom of it

Qatar is trying to solve the issue, starting with better research. This year the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) announced that it would investigate food distribution waste and consumption in the state. The project, entitled Safeguarding Food and Environment in Qatar (SAFE-Q), intends to focus on the long-term sustainability of Qatar’s food supply chain, including its green aspects, and the interconnection of these aspects with the population’s health and economic development.

According to co-lead principal investigator Zeynep Topaloglu, adjunct assistant professor of Economics at Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), the current statistics point to a huge waste on many levels. Most of the discarded food in Qatar has been produced somewhere else in the world, packaged, transported and distributed before finally reaching customers – who then throw away a huge amount of it. As a result, hundreds of thousands of animals and plants are sacrificed every year for nothing. All the pollution that is associated with harvest/slaughter, processing, cold storage and destruction also helps explains why Qatar has, per capita, the second worst carbon footprint on the planet.

Topaloglu says, “We propose a three-stage methodology composed of problem structuring, operational modelling and generation of a repository for risk assessment for the implementation of the policies that aim to reduce food waste in Qatar. My specialisation has always been risk management, yet for this project my role is to conduct risk analysis for the food supply chain.”

Topaloglu says it is crucial to understand exactly how much food is wasted in Qatar. “At this stage, there is scattered information from different stakeholders,” she says. “In addition, we would like to engage the consumer through the sharing of their food waste diary, which would record the types or kinds of products wasted, the reason why they discarded it as well as whether it could be avoidable or reused/recycled in another way. This will be a totally voluntary activity, because changing consumption habits and practices cannot be enforced and will only occur if people really want to make a change.”

Some local organisations, such as Food Savings Bank, are trying to collect leftover food and distribute it to the poor. One of them reports retrieving up to 10 tonnes of food over the course of two days, which they then transform into meal packages. This is often the remains of endless buffets, or food that is close to its sell-by date, which does not necessarily mean it is unsafe to eat.

The SAFE-Q project forms part of one of Qatar’s national priorities: food security. An entire government department is devoted to the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP), which has held numerous conferences since 2008. Billions of riyals have been set aside to make Qatar less dependent on food imports, but the QNFSP has already been scaled down to ‘only’ aim for a 40 percent local food production by 2023. It is uncertain what causes the greatest ecological damage: importing soil and fertiliser, and desalinating millions of litres of water to grow a few thousand hectares of food, or continuing to import food, albeit hopefully from countries closer by?


Weighing up the cost

In the meantime, the problem is only getting bigger. More than 70 percent of Qatar’s indigenous population is currently described as overweight or obese, and between 15 and 25 percent are believed to suffer from diabetes. Qatar’s percentage of overweight, obese and/or diabetic children is among the highest in the world, which does not bode well for future medical costs. The country is confronting this with, amongst others, videos highlighting the link between over-shopping and health problems. A local app, called Basket, has also been developed to make people more aware about what they are buying and wasting.

This will still take time to sink in. Of the approximately 280,000 Qatari nationals, 1000 to 2000 undergo bariatric (weight-loss) surgery every year – and this is increasing. Food over-consumption is also good for the bottom-line of pharmaceutical companies that sell medicines to counter heartburn, cardiovascular problems and various diseases related to nutrition. It is also good for the thousands of restaurants, from super chic to plastic shack, for fast food chains, for stores crammed with food, and for the catering industry, not to mention the advertising money that goes with it.

In 2014 Qatar’s 2.235 million residents spent a collective USD11 billion (QAR40 billion) on food. This represents an annual average of almost QAR18,000 worth of food per person – including children, the elderly and low-income migrants, who make up the bulk of the residents. Writing recently for The Edge, Sanjay Bhatia, managing director of Alpen Capital Investment Bank (Qatar), stated that Qatar is expected to be the fastest-growing market for food consumption during 2014 to 2019 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.5 percent. By 2019, the country will in all probability consume 2.2 million metric tonnes of food. Given the current trend, this will translate into even more food being wasted and ending up in landfills.

“While our study primarily focuses on Qatar, the results may have a regional and global impact,” says Topaloglu. “Similar studies have been conducted around the world. By taking a closer look at the situation in Qatar, we can try to address the issue. However, for the project to be an overall success, we are highly dependent on the co-operation of the public and policy makers in Qatar.”

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