THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
Holy month of Ramadan is a period when Muslims around the world undertake fasting by abstaining from eating, drinking or having intimate relations from dawn to dusk. The month-long fasting also provides an opportunity to understand the deprivation that poor and needy people undergo everyday due to their privation. Additionally, Ramadan is also that time of the year when the faithful are obligated to practice self-restraint and moderation in thought and action, forgo their pride and ego, and remain humble and pious.
Despite such noble attributes attached to the holy month, it is ironic that in Kuwait the month of fasting is when people often spend the most on foods and engage in unrestrained indulgence that results in enormous food waste. From excessive shopping for food and other goods, to pretentious entertaining of friends and relatives at lavish Iftar and Ghabka celebrations, and the gratuitous wastage of foods witnessed in many households, the excessiveness exhibited during this period of piety and prayer is both unjustified and inexcusable. In addition, the prevailing social acceptance of wanton wastage of food, and ‘looking the other way’ on this social abhorrence is inexplicable and morally and ethically reprehensible.
Moreover, the immoderate spending on food is also economically unfeasible over the long-term, especially for a country such as Kuwait where nearly every morsel of food has to be imported from abroad. The rationale behind a policy where the high cost of sourcing and importing food is made affordable to citizens and residents through significant state subsidies and negligible import duties, is also questionable.
How is it even feasible to think of wasting food in a country that is potentially among the most food insecure in the world? At present, we may have the oil wealth to source, buy and stock up on enough food items to see us through any potential food crisis.
But is this policy sustainable over a prolonged period of food scarcity that could be brought on by climate change related radical weather patterns that could deplete global food output, or from shipping and transport bottlenecks in food supply chains from another pandemic or geopolitical upheaval? The authorities need to find answers to these and other related questions, as their relevance for the country could only increase in the years ahead.
The current high oil and gas prices are no doubt a boon to Kuwait’s economy, but this windfall could be offset to an extent by the hike in inflation from the higher and longer global food price scenario, as well as increased shipping and insurance costs. There is also the ever-lurking prospect of oil taking a tumble or of a correction in prices, that many experts now say could be expected as early as the last quarter of this year. According to latest projections from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO), food and animal feed prices could increase by 8-22 percent over the course of this year and next.
Global food prices that were already high are being exacerbated by the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Prices that were high even before the war in Europe — due to the confluence of several geopolitical factors, including changing weather patterns that impacted food production, and the COVID-19 crisis that led to breakdowns in food supply chains — are now likely to remain higher for longer as Russia and Ukraine are both among the leading producers and major exporters of staples such as wheat, maize, and sunflower oil, as well as other products.
Destruction of Ukraine’s production, storage, and transport facilities as a result of the war, along with disruptions to Russia’s grain and fertilizer exports due to sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies, could lead to further steep rises in global food prices that could last longer than what many predict. In this context it is worth remembering that food price increases in 2007, and again in 2010 led to widespread social instability in several countries.
The current situation is equally if not more dire. Many low- and middle-income countries, already saddled by inflationary pressures, high debt levels, and exposed to fallouts from climate change related extreme weather conditions, are unlikely to withstand the effects of further spike in food prices, and the social and political upheavals that could ensue. High food prices would also push another 8 to 13 million into the pool of undernourished people worldwide, estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) at 770 million in 2020 — 118 million people falling into this category in 2020 due to global pandemic.
Notwithstanding the possible repercussions from global food price hikes and availability, the Minister of Commerce and Industry Fahad Al-Shuraian asserted last Thursday that, food security in Kuwait is “strong”, and that food prices are currently “stable and will not be affected by any changes’’. He also stressed that the government is “fully committed” on this matter, and expressed confidence in the country’s strategic reserve of essential food supplies.
Meanwhile, Acting Director of Kuwait Port Authority Bader Al-Enezi, pointed out that port traffic is “flowing as usual” with ships docking and smoothly unloading in accordance with international standards. For his part, the Chairman of the Union of Consumer Cooperative Societies Abdulaziz Asad said that the conflict in Ukraine was neither affecting availability of products nor prices, emphasizing the strategic storage was enough and there were many alternative products from other countries other than Ukraine and Russia.
It is true that the country had enough food reserves to see it through the supply chain breakdowns witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Kuwait probably has sufficient stocks to tide over the present hostilities that have erupted in Eastern Europe.
However, building bigger silos and stocking up on food is not a viable long-term food strategy, especially given the lack of food security and vulnerability of the country’s economy to fluctuations in international oil prices. Clearly, we need to find pragmatic solutions to our dependence on food imports, beginning with curbing food wastage.
The World Food Waste Index 2021 published annually by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) shows that annual food waste from households, retail establishments and the food service industry totaled 931 million tonnes. Of this total, 569 million tonnes (61%) occured at the household level, 244 million tonnes (26%) from food service and 118 million tonnes (13%) from retail. The anomaly of this humongous waste is driven home by the fact that in a world where nearly two billion people are overweight or obese, there are more than two billion people who go hungry to bed each night.
In the Middle East, the average annual household food waste per capita was estimated at 110kg in the index by UNEP. However, the report acknowledges that only the estimate by Saudi Arabia, of food wastage at 105kg per capita per annum, had a high level of confidence. Bahrain, which reported an estimated 132kg of waste per person, had a medium level of confidence. The figure of 95kg of wastage per capita estimated for the remaining four countries of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, had only a low level of confidence in the index.
Even based on these low confidence estimates, the annual food wastage by the 4.6 million population in Kuwait last year was nearly half a billion kilos. In Kuwait, the Municipality is responsible for the collection and disposal of all Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) generated in the country. However, this entity lacks any clear-cut strategies for waste prevention, reduction,recycling, or reuse and nearly all of the MSW collected ends up in landfills. Available figures from the Central Statistical Bureau show that a total of 893,044 tonnes of MSW generated in 2018 ended up in landfills. Other studies on MSW in Kuwait reveal that over 50 percent of MSW generated or around 446,552 tonnes was from food waste.
The UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12, which calls for ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns in goods and resources, has set 11 separate targets to be achieved. Target 12.3 aims to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses, by 2030.
The UNEP report highlights the importance of SDG12 by noting that the average annual food waste per capita in 2020 was 76kg in high-income countries, 79kg in upper middle income countries and 91kg in lower middle income countries, while there was no sufficient data to measure food waste in low-income countries. The report also discloses that the global average of 82 kg per capita of food wasted each year is remarkably similar from lower-middle income to high-income countries, which suggests that most countries have room to improve on their wastage of food.
In this regard it is important to draw a distinction between food waste and food loss. Food waste happens at the consumer and retail level, food loss occurs in the production and transportation stage. The UNEP report only measures food waste. A recent study on food loss and waste in food supply chains in 2019, showed that nearly 45 percent of total global food production of 9.4 billion tonnes was lost in the production and transportation stage, leaving behind only around 5.3 billion tonnes of food for consumption. This suggests that nearly 18 percent of total global consumable food production is currently being wasted.
Additionally, the report noted that food waste has substantial environmental, social, and economic impacts, and that wasting food was in effect throwing away the resources that went into its production — both natural and financial resources. Also, 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are associated with food that is produced but never eaten. The UN agency urged countries to integrate the reduction of food waste into their national climate strategies, as it reflected the massive impact it has on the environment.
Reducing food wastage is critical to mitigating Kuwait’s lack of food security, however, this alone will not help increase food solvency. Achieving food security through traditional farming methods, or even using advanced technological breakthroughs in food production, are not a viable option given that farming is not a profession in Kuwait. What we have in the country are ‘hobbyist farmers’ who own farmland that are largely unproductive tracts of land used to grow a few fresh produce using unsustainable irrigation practices and imported laborers. These farms mainly serve as entertainment locations for their owners during weekends and holidays.
Growing crops to feed the entire population in Kuwait is impractical and infeasible, especially in light of the country’s mega-arid desert climate. Studies conducted earlier show that less than 9 percent of the country’s total land area of around 18,000 square kilometers (km2) is considered arable. Of this 1,540km2, only around 120km2 is under cultivation, with the remaining arable land used largely as pasture for livestock that are insufficient to meet the country’s demand for meat.
Despite the agriculture sector accounting for only a small segment of the economy, it uses nearly 60 percent of groundwater withdrawals in Kuwait, as this water is provided free of charge to the so called ‘farmers’. The steady withdrawal of groundwater for agriculture depletes this already scarce resource, while further increasing soil salinity and decreasing land productivity. The unethical use of expensive, energy-intensive desalinated water for agriculture is also on the increase in some places. Water scarcity adds to the challenges of achieving a sustainable and economically viable agricultural industry.
Attempting to realize food security through domestic food production or attain limited self-sufficiency also remains untenable, at least under prevailing circumstances. The country’s miniscule amount of arable land, a sandy soil that does not retain the available scant annual rainfall, the lack of any natural surface water sources and depleting groundwater resources that ranks the country among the world’s extremely high water stressed nations, render the country inhospitable to agriculture.
Using oil wealth to buy farming land abroad to ensure food supplies is also not reliable, as it is dependent on continued geopolitical stability. Under various exigencies the land owned overseas could be expropriated by that nation, especially when it comes to ensuring food supplies for its own citizens. In addition, the country remains vulnerable to threats of supply disruptions caused by regional and international conflicts. Apparently, relying on sourcing and importing food from abroad, and stocking up on essential items, although not a long-term viable strategy, is currently the only option before Kuwait.
Kuwait could also strive to achieve self-sufficiency in a few selected items, such as in fruits and vegetables using technology that relies on less water and land usage, as well as increasing the domestic production of poultry and eggs. One interesting study that came up recently was one conducted at Tohoku University in Japan by Kuwaiti researcher Meshal J. Abdullah and others. The study, published in November 2021 and titled, ‘Potential for Food Self-Sufficiency Improvements through Indoor and Vertical Farming in the Gulf Cooperation Council: Challenges and Opportunities from the Case of Kuwait’, looks at using advanced technologies to increase self-sufficiency in some food items in Kuwait.
The paper notes that advanced ‘Controlled Environment Agriculture’ (CEA) technology has the potential to improve food self-sufficiency by multiplying vegetable crop yields while optimizing efficiency of agricultural inputs and minimizing land requirements. The authors demonstrate that using the CEA systems configured either as indoor farms spread across 15km2, or vertical farms of less than 0.1 km2, could reduce or eliminate the need to import six important vegetable crops in Kuwait. Additionally, these farms are irrigated using hydroponic or aeroponic systems, which have been shown to use 90 percent less water than traditional field agriculture.
The researchers say that If properly contextualized and supported by clear legislation and well-managed regulatory bodies, indoor agriculture initiatives may provide a pathway for Kuwait and other GCC countries to reduce their dependence on imported foods and increase resilience to food supply disruption during disasters or conflict.
Given the prevailing political instability in Kuwait, and the constant bickering in parliament between the executive and legislative arms of government, implementing any such advanced food production technologies, even if it means achieving limited food sufficiency, looks at best a pipedream.
In the meantime, the best that the country can hope for is to reduce vulnerabilities and improve food security, by curbing wastage and rationalizing consumption. In her foreword to the UN Food Waste Index 2021, Executive Director of UNEP Inger Andersen notes, “Let us all shop carefully, cook creatively and make wasting food anywhere socially unacceptable while we strive to provide healthy, sustainable diets to all.” No doubt this is sound advice to everyone in Kuwait.