Saudis resist ‘throwaway’ culture of food waste

The average Saudi wastes up to 250 kilograms of food annually, compared to a global average of 115 kilograms.

Sunday 12/01/2020
Saudi volunteers, with the Saudi Food Bank or Etaam, pack leftovers into boxes.   (AFP)
More than required. Saudi volunteers, with the Saudi Food Bank or Etaam, pack leftovers into boxes. (AFP)

RIYADH - The plate is designed to make a meal look bigger — a gastronomic illusion and an innovative way to tame Saudi Arabia’s pervasive throwaway culture, which results in colossal food waste.

Across much of the Gulf, lavish displays of food are considered a cultural totem of generosity and hospitality. Much, however, of it ends up in the trash.

Saudi households typically serve large oval-shaped platters piled high with rice, a daily staple, but a lot goes to waste as many nibble at the sides and rarely reach the middle.

Entrepreneur Mashal Alkharashi is fighting back with a rice plate that makes the portion of food appear bigger. With a mound in the centre, the plate minimises the middle area, prompting people to serve less and save more.

“The innovative design, elevated from the middle, reduces waste 30%,” Alkharashi said, adding that the plate, adopted by many Saudi restaurants, has saved more than 3,000 tonnes of rice in recent years.

“This way we preserve the generosity part while cutting waste,” he said.

The desert kingdom, which, because of its limited arable land and scarce water resources, is heavily reliant on imports to meet its growing food demand, has the world’s highest rate of waste.

The average Saudi wastes up to 250 kilograms of food annually, compared to a global average of 115 kilograms, Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture said, costing the country approximately $13 billion a year.

The Economist Intelligence Unit said consumption is far higher than the official estimate. It said the average Saudi wastes as much as 427 kilograms every year, underscoring what observers call a throwaway consumer culture that undervalues food.

“Since food items and groceries are abundantly available to all living in (Saudi Arabia) and they are highly subsidised, the residents take food for granted,” academics from Riyadh’s King Saud University wrote in a research report last year. “Food waste in restaurants, celebrations, social events is enormous… (as) the custom is to provide more food than required.”

The Saudi Food Bank, or Etaam, a charity that collects surplus food from hotels and wedding halls and distributes it to the needy, called on the government to penalise waste.

In Saudi Arabia, where vast oil reserves reaped enormous wealth in a few dizzying decades, food is not simply a source of nutrition but also an expression of cultural identity. In a traditional society where social interactions often revolve around food, enormous displays of it connote affluence.

“In just one generation, Saudi Arabia went from conditions of scarcity to plenty and, for some, immense wealth,” said Kristin Diwan, from the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “It’s easy to see then how this rather austere culture would project its wealth into the socially acceptable area of hospitality and food.”

Many Saudis shrug off stereotypes of being gluttons in a country where local media say more than 40% of the population is obese. A recent newspaper cartoon portrayed a single man hunched over a sumptuous spread of steaming food and asking a woman donning a kitchen apron: “Is this all?”

“The only real freedom we have in an absolute monarchy is the freedom to eat,” said a Saudi academic, who declined to be named. “For a long time, the only entertainment for Saudis was restaurants and food.”

“Shop, eat and pray” was long the motto for many Saudis in an age of high oil prices, which long supported the government’s cradle-to-grave subsidies but many are rethinking their lifestyle amid rising economic pressures as the conservative kingdom pares back subsidies and opens up once-unthinkable outlets for entertainment, such as cinemas and concerts.

Environmentalists say Saudi Arabia’s high demand for meat fuels wildfires in the Amazon rainforests, which make way for livestock. The kingdom is one of the biggest importers of Brazilian beef.

Many young Saudis are shunning a culture of excess to promote minimalism and meatless diets, among them is chef Almaha Aldossari, known on social media as “The Bedouin Vegan.”

Waste, however, is a relic of the oil boom era, limited not just to food. It is common to see car engines idling for hours, a habit that stems from an era when oil was cheaper than water.

Water, too, is wasted even as the arid kingdom faces declining resources. Saudi Arabia consumes 263 litres of water per capita per day, double the daily world average, and the government aims to reduce it to 150 litres by 2030.

Diwan said: “Cultural change is hard but concerns about environmentalism, sustainability and more healthy living among a certain class of Saudis will have some effect. These are the seeds of change.”