Eating out is up there as one of the most popular expat pastimes in the capital, but is our love for food sustainable? We look at how you can be the main ingredient in making a change in the UAE’s dining scene
Food is big business. In fact, these days you could go as far as to say that it’s become an obsession. Dining out is no longer an activity reserved for special occasions and in the current tsunami of social-media, being a ‘foodie’ has emerged as a tenet of cool.
Instagrammers upload daily pictures of doughnut-topped freakshakes or avocado-loaded flatbreads for their oodles of followers. Hipster food magazines like Peckish and Kinfolk have elbowed their way on to magazine stands. According to data from the Sustainable Food Trust, spending on eating out in the US recently overtook spending on groceries for the first time in history.
In Abu Dhabi, the recipe is similar. With more disposable income and busy working lives, dining out has become part of the daily menu for many of us. Last year, auditing service KPMG released a local report entitled Ready to Serve, which saw 81 percent of surveyed respondents reveal that they eat out more now than in any previous year. The study also projected that the UAE’s food and beverage industry will be worth $13.2 billion (AED 48.47 billion) by the end of 2018, with an expected 19,053 food and beverage outlets predicted to be open in the country by 2020. Big business for sure, but this entire food obsession doesn’t come without its drawbacks.
Each day, the country’s capita of rubbish, including food waste, is 2.7kg per person. Demand for ‘trending’ ingredients at restaurants across the city contributes to the country’s imported food figures, which currently stand at a whopping 90 percent. As seafood has peaked in popularity, the UAE’s fish stocks have nose-dived, leading the government to introduce fishing bans on certain species at specific times of the year.
Given that we only have one planet, perhaps it’s time we looked in the mirror to see how we can be more responsible consumers in order to continue to enjoy the fruits of this Earth for many years to come.
Food for thought
For Amruta Kshemkalyani, founder of sustainabilitytribe.com, the UAE’s first sustainable lifestyle blog, supporting restaurants that are eco-conscious is something everyone in the UAE should get behind.
When it comes to finding ‘green’ eateries, Amruta advises: “Find places offering locally-grown ingredients, including local water instead of bottled water that’s been imported from a far-off country.
“Look for places that offer plastic-free cutlery, straws, packaging and so on,” she adds.
This plastic-free initiative is something that The Club, Abu Dhabi is focusing on, having removed all non-biodegradable single-use plastic straws from its outlets. It’s part of the venue’s on-going sustainability efforts, which also include serving water in jugs rather than plastic bottles.
Julie Fishcart, a member of The Club’s CSR committee, explains: “We have replaced our single-use plastic glasses with polycarbonate glasses. Our take-away coffee cups are completely compostable and we also provide a service for members to bring in recyclable waste.”
The results have meant that, in less than two months, over 2,000 litre-jugs of water were served, saving the same number of bottles from taking up residence in Abu Dhabi’s landfills.
Similarly, Hilton has recently called time on plastic with the hotel operator vowing to remove five million straws and 20 million bottles from across its Europe and MENA hotels by next year. William Costley, regional vice president of operations at Hilton, said: “By implanting these initiatives, we are making a small but significant step in playing our part to reduce the volume of plastic that damages our environment and marine ecosystems.
“As diners, opting to eat in places like Hilton Al Ain, Hilton Abu Dhabi or Hilton Capital Grand Abu Dhabi – where sustainability has been given a seat at the table – is a step in the right direction.”
When it comes to what you’re choosing from the menu, arming yourself with knowledge and being aware of what you’re going to eat can go a long way. If you can, occasionally go for a meat-free meal, or consider paying a little extra for meat that has been sustainably reared. Understand that not all meats are created equal – lamb for instance has one of the highest production emission rates, while chicken is on the lower end of the spectrum.
If opting for seafood, choose your dish carefully. As the human population continues to grow, our oceans are suffering. In a survey conducted by the Emirates-Wildlife Society in association with the World Wide Fund for Nature, 66 percent of the UAE population eats fish at least once a week. Hammour, a popular choice in this region, was added to the Red List of The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a Near Threatened species way back in 2004. Despite successful regional efforts to boost its population in Gulf waters, the world as a whole will be better off if you simply pick something else.
As diners, the ability to choose is perhaps the greatest power that we have in terms of nudging the restaurant industry towards sustainability – essentially, you get the chance to pick sustainability every time you dine out. So get clued up, make better-informed choices and take steps towards becoming a more eco-conscious consumer. If we all get on board, hopefully dining out in the future can be something we’re no longer making such a meal of.
Takeaways for sustainable dining
Say no to straws: Among the top ten debris items found during beach clean-ups – do you really need a straw with that drink? If the answer is yes then purchase a reusable one and bring it with you.
Picky eater: Find out which restaurants are serious about sustainability and lend your support by opting to dine there over somewhere else.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew: Prevent food from ending up in landfills by practising portion control. Sharing plates is a great way to go.
Take out: If you do over-order, ask to take your leftovers with you, but be conscious of the packaging used. Often if you mention this to the waiter, they’ll skip some of the extra bags or boxes.
No taste like home: Locally-grown produce travels fewer miles to get to you, lessening the carbon footprint of your food. Choose to dine at places that buy from local farmers.
A raw deal: Raw foods use less water and energy in their preparation, making them more sustainable, so go ahead and embrace the current uncooked trend.
Carpool: One of the simplest ways to make dining out more sustainable is to get there in one car, rather than everyone meeting at the restaurant.
There’s an app for it: Arm yourself with knowledge. Try the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide for the sustainability ratings of seafood or download NoshPlanet to get a list of eateries around the world with sustainable cred, perfect for when you’re travelling.
WORDS Hayley Skirka