Did you know that despite common assumptions, the highest percentage of waste in Saudi Arabia is not plastic, nor paper, but actually food waste? Shockingly, food waste accounts for between 40-51% of the total waste generated in the country, followed by paper, cardboard, plastics and others. This alarming statistic has prompted the government to take action and combat this annual loss. In this conversation, I will explore the causes and effects of food waste in Saudi Arabia and discuss theinitiatives taken by the government and individuals to address this issue.
The General Food Security Authority in Saudi Arabia has launched a new campaign to reduce food waste in the country. The initiative, which coincides with the start of the holy month of Ramadan, aims to raise awareness of the importance of food security and encourage people to practise more moderate consumption. According to the authority, about SR40 billion ($10.6 billion) worth of food is wasted in Saudi Arabia every year, which accounts for about a third of the total amount consumed.
To promote the campaign, the authority produced a video featuring young boys and girls discussing how their families had overindulged during Ramadan. The children described how their tables were overflowing with food and expressed their concerns about wastage. Several suggested that families should make better use of leftovers when preparing their next Iftar and ensure anything they do not need is given to someone who could benefit from it. The campaign has been widely shared on social media, and the authority hopes that it will inspire people to take action to reduce food waste in the country.
Food Waste Problem
Food waste is a major problem in Saudi Arabia, with estimates suggesting that it forms up to 40-51% of the waste in Saudi Arabia, followed by paper, cardboard, plastics, and other materials.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an estimated 1/3 of all food produced globally is lost or goes to waste. Saudi Arabia is among the biggest food wasters in the world, with approximately 33% of food being wasted in the country, according to a study by the Saudi Grains Organization (SAGO) conducted in 2019.
In support of Vision 2030 and the efforts to reduce food waste, the Saudi Arabia Accelerator Lab has taken steps to better understand the players in this ecosystem and identify areas that can be explored to find innovative solutions. The lab engaged with stakeholders, including the private sector, non-profit organizations, and academia, to gain insight into the complexity of food waste in the Saudi Arabian context. UNDP Accelerator Labs globally are building on this understanding, with the Saudi Accelerator Lab joining the effort to tackle food waste locally with support from its global network.
Saudi Arabia faces a significant food waste problem, with estimates of annual per capita waste ranging from 165 kg to 511 kg. Given the country’s limited agricultural production, interventions at the consumer and retail levels are critical. Factors contributing to waste include culture, food valuation, policy and industry factors, and awareness and concern. To address this challenge, a group of young Saudi entrepreneurs developed an app called Barakah, enabling restaurants to offer deals on cooked meals and prevent food waste.
In 2022, the Saudi Grains Organization launched an extensive awareness campaign, titled “The Waste Moment,” to promote the importance of food diversification and rationalization in consumption, emphasizing the adoption of sound practices to reduce food waste. The National Program to Reduce Food Loss and Waste aims to coordinate and implement public policies to understand the causes and effects of food losses and waste, raise public awareness, and share tips and ideas related to reducing food waste and making the most of leftovers.
SAGO reports that food waste in the Kingdom exceeds SR40 billion annually, with a 33 percent loss and waste rate. The dire effects of food loss and waste on the economic, health, social, and environmental levels highlight the loss of resources integral to the food production process, exacerbating food insecurity in countries with limited resources that struggle to import goods to meet basic food needs.
Innovative solutions like entrepreneur Mashal Alkharashi’s rice plate can play a significant role in combating food waste. The plate’s unique design, featuring a mound in the center that minimizes the middle area, prompts people to serve less and save more, reducing waste by 30 percent. The plate has been adopted by multiple Saudi restaurants, saving over 3,000 tons of rice. The average Saudi wastes up to 250 kg of food annually, costing the country approximately $13 billion annually. The Economist Intelligence Unit suggests that this figure may be far higher, with the average Saudi wasting as much as 427 kg annually, underscoring the need to address the throwaway consumer culture undervaluing food in the country.
Food a Cultural Statement
Food plays a significant role in Saudi Arabian culture, serving as both a source of sustenance and a symbol of cultural identity. Traditionally, large displays of food are seen as a representation of affluence, and social interactions often revolve around meals. However, the rising prices of food in the country have led many Saudis to reconsider their food wasting habits.
As the country opens up to new forms of entertainment, such as cinemas and concerts, people are moving away from solely focusing on food-related activities. In Saudi culture, sharing food with those who are less fortunate is considered a charitable act, and many wedding halls prepare leftover food for people to take home. Additionally, the increasing cost of food has made Saudis more mindful of their spending habits.
As a result, there is a growing trend of charities taking surplus food and distributing it to those in need. By doing so, Saudis are not only able to reduce food waste but also help those who are struggling to access adequate nutrition. As Saudi Arabia continues to evolve, its relationship with food is also changing, but its significance in Saudi culture remains strong.