Massive, overwhelmed landfills, restrictive legislations, and a culture of waste. What does Qatar need to tackle its food waste issue?
Before the 2017 Gulf blockade, Qatar used 90% of its food. Its hot climate ecosystem was once an obstacle to its self sufficiency, and when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt imposed an illegal embargo, Qatar’s food security was put at a major risk.
Years later, the country’s domestic industry boomed and with the introduction of Baladna and efforts of local farms, Qatar was able to strengthen its food industry in a way deemed to be unprecedented to the Gulf state.
But with a burgeoning food industry, an already existing problem was only worsening. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Qatar has exhibited a pressing food wastage problem that is expected to deteriorate further with one of the biggest events of the region edging nearer – the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“Everyone knows that there’s an issue, but there’s nothing being done about it (food waste) and one of the other problems is that there’s no data to really support it,” said ecopreneur, food writer and Qatar Media Corporation TV presenter Kim Wyatt.
Wyatt, who’s been involved in the issue of food wastage and various initiatives in Qatar for five years, says that the problem of food waste presents itself at multiple levels in Qatari society. This includes commercially through restaurants, food and beverage outlets and supermarkets, as well domestically, through households.
When asked who the biggest food waste culprit was, 551 people voted retail stores and restaurants, followed by individual family homes that received 429 votes.
According to the food writer, much of Qatar’s food waste ends up in landfills that are quickly filling up, with little capacity left. This is harmful for the environment, as the decomposition of organic waste in landfills leads to higher levels of methane which accumulates in the atmosphere for a longer time than carbon dioxide.
If not managed well, this issue could get even worse. With the influx of people set to arrive in Qatar next year for the World Cup, Qatar’s already overwhelmed landfills will face massive pressure, and will not be able to sustain that influx.
To Wyatt, the problem of Qatar’s food waste is not the lack of discourse surrounding the issue. In fact, Qatar has illustrated a National Food Security Strategy that runs through the years 2018 to 2023 and tackles issues of self sufficiency, risk management, and food waste.
But Wyatt says that thus far, there’s been little call to action in the implementation of any of these plans, and due to restrictive red tape from Qatar’s food legislation, individual entities have a hard time controlling the problem themselves.
“For instance, supermarkets produce tonnes of food waste a month, a lot of that food is surplus food. While some supermarkets can reduce the price, there’s usually great liability for supermarkets to sell food close to its expiration date,” added Wyatt.
The liability comes from Qatar’s stringent labelling laws, and supermarkets that sell food nearing its expiration date may risk random, unscheduled government inspections that may result in hefty fines or shut downs.
To avoid the risk, many supermarkets simply throw the food away. This may even include food that was made fresh, such as bread made the very day it gets thrown out. In one initiative, Wyatt saw 24,000 jars of jam be dumped in a landfill.
Unsurprisingly, 96% of voters we surveyed said that stores should decrease prices for soon-to-expire items rather than throw them out. Only 38 individuals voted no. 91% of voters also believed that could do more to avoid food waste at home.
“It’s sometimes seen as shameful to eat leftover food or keep leftovers”
When food ends up in a landfill, it stops it from reaching the kitchen tables, pantries, and refrigerators of those who need it most. With the Covid-19 pandemic, many lost their jobs or had their wages reduced, putting people in positions of great financial instability. This means less money to spend on food.
This also creates cycle in which food waste drives up costs. According to a 2019 study by Qatar University, food waste leads to increased demand for food, and thus, higher prices. This leads to social cost, when prices are high and fewer individuals can purchase good quality food.
One way to solve this problem is through government regulations. One example of this is France which, in 2016, adopted a law on fighting food waste that meant supermarkets were not allowed to destroy unsold food products and were compelled to donate it instead.
The Hifz Al Naema centre in Qatar is an example of a food bank in the Gulf state that has given out food to those in need.
Beyond restaurants and supermarkets, household attitudes greatly contribute to the issue of food waste.
“Wealthier nations around the world tend to have the worst food waste problems. The more money a country has, the less it values basic necessities like food,” said Wyatt.
In a sense, higher-income nations have a fast food culture, “and it’s sometimes seen as shameful to eat leftover food or keep leftovers,” added the food writer. Interestingly, the holy month of Ramadan happens to be the time where food waste production is at the highest.
When asked about buffets, such as those prevalent during Ramadan, Doha News respondents were split, with 51% of voters saying that buffets should become a thing of the past, and 49% saying they should stay.
However, change is on the horizon. More people in Qatar have started to opt for composting as a method of cutting down food waste and recycling organic matter.
“I’ve seen it all over social media, people are starting to create gardening and composting accounts in Qatar, and more people are getting involved,” said Kim.
Qatar takes action
In fact, a ministerial decision has been issued making it mandatory for all entities to sort out their waste into organic and solid, according to an official from the Ministry of Municipality and Environment (MME). The initiative will help recycle the organic waste into other products like fodders and fertilisers.
Projects have been launched to treat domestic waste and licenses were issued to two plants to treat organic waste, with the capacity to produce a total of 24,000 tonnes of organic fertilisers.
Food waste can also be turned into concentrated feed and two projects were launched to do just that. Some food waste can be added to it and mixed for livestock, as well as utilising from some surplus fish for feed composition.
The MME coordinated with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to issue licences to set up factories, which will convert some food commodities into other commodities, such as converting low quality tomatoes into sauce.
In April, the Facilities & General Services Department in Qatar University (QU) succeeded in producing the first batch of fertiliser by converting food waste generated at the students’ housing.
The project was an implementation of the QU Zero Waste Action Plan 2021 – 2025 for realising the main goal of getting solid waste management practices in the campus aligned with the Qatar University Strategy 2018-2022.
The ME has also raised concerns about wastage of food items by people. The Director of MME’s Food Security Department Masoud Jarallah Al Marr has urged consumers to change their behaviour to food habits to reduce food wastage.
“I would like to send a message to consumers on the issue of food waste. The country has made tremendous efforts with the support of private sector for producing fresh food locally, now consumers have a big role to reduce food waste,” said Al Marri to a Qatar TV programme in January.
In February, The ‘Food Wast Management Programme’ initiative was launched by the Food Security Department to reduce food wastes and make policies to collect the organic wastes and recycle or use them for other purposes.
More than 700 people who took part in the survey said they would use an app that could help them decrease the amount of food waste they produced. In contrast, only 243 people said they would not, suggesting a huge appetite from Qatar’s public for direct action to tackle the food waste problem.