RIYADH: Saudi households typically serve large oval-shaped platters piled high with rice, a daily staple, but a lot goes to waste as many just nibble on the sides and rarely even reach the middle. Entrepreneur Mashal al Kharashi 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 by 30 per cent,” Al Kharashi said, adding that the plate, adopted in recent years by multiple Saudi restaurants, has saved more than 3,000 tonnes of rice.
“This way we preserve the generosity part while cutting waste.” The average Saudi wastes up to 250 kilograms of food annually, compared to a global average of 115 kg, according to the ministry of environment, water and agriculture. The ministry estimates the waste costs Saudi Arabia, which is scrambling to boost state coffers amid low oil prices, around $13 billion annually. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the consumption is far higher than the official estimate: it says the average Saudi wastes as much as 427 kg 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 which collects surplus food from hotels and wedding halls and distributes it to the needy, has 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,” Kristin Diwan, from the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said.
“It’s easy to see then how this rather austere culture would project its wealth into the socially acceptable area of hospitality and food.”
But many are rethinking their lifestyles amid rising economic pressures as the country pares back subsidies but also 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 the chef Almaha Aldossari, well 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. — AFP