Food Security, Obesity, and the Politics of Resource Strain in Kuwait

AuthorDeborah L. Wheeler
Published date01 September 2015
Date01 September 2015
Food Security, Obesity, and the Politics of Resource
Strain in Kuwait
Deborah L. Wheeler
This study considers Kuwait’s food security strategies in light of the country’s environmental
challenges. It examines the case of a country that relies on food imports, which are increasingly
subject to supply and price shocks, and has one of the world’s highest obesity rates, highest water
use rates per capita, and one of the largest per capita waste footprints globally. The explanations for
this curious situation include cultural, political, economic, and environmental variables supported
by data collected between 2009 and 2014 using ethnographic research methods and participant
observation in Kuwait. This article contributes to an emerging body of scholarship on new security
challenges in the Arabian Gulf, and is one of the f‌irst to consider the national security implications
of public health and resource strain in Kuwait, using ethnographic research methods.
KEY WORDS: food security, public health, ethnography, national security
O children of Adam; take your adornment at every mosque and eat and
drink; but be not excessive. Indeed; He likes not those who commit
excess. Q 7:31 (
If we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible
to seek to increase the supply, to decrease the waste, to make better use
of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of
the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem.
(Galbraith, 1958).
Introduction: World Food Market Dependence and Kuwait’s Food Security
The world’s human carrying capacity is increasingly strained by population
growth, climate change, and the rise of new middle-class appetites. Countries like
Kuwait that depend on global markets to feed their populations are increasingly
focused on the strategic implications of price and availability shocks to the food
supply (Bailey & Willoughby, 2014; Lybbert & Morgan, 2013; Woertz, 2013).
Kuwait and neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries import more
than 90 percent of their food supplies. Recent global price and availability shocks,
World Medical & Health Policy, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2015
1948-4682 #2015 Policy Studies Organization
Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ.
especially for strategic foods (Gulf dietary staples) like rice, wheat, corn, milk
powder, cooking oil, and chicken, raise concern over Kuwait’s food security.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, argues that,
“competition for and secure access to natural resources (e.g., food, water,
and energy) are growing security threats” for the world community (Clapper,
2014, p. 9). According to UN estimates, the world needs to produce 70 percent
more food to nourish a projected 9.6 billion people by 2050 (Eisberg, 2014, p. 4);
93 percent of all arable land globally is already under cultivation, thus price and
availability shocks are projected to increase in the projected resource wars
(Barrett, 2014; Brown, 2012; Clapper, 2014; Food and Agriculture Organization,
2009). Moreover, the quantity and quality of the world’s available fresh-water
reserves are declining due to overextraction beyond the renewal rate. Countries
like Kuwait experience potential risks to their food supply because of increased
food and water demands, locally and globally, at a time of shrinking global
supply. Geographic conditions in Kuwait hinder increased domestic food
production as a solution.
In spite of natural resour ce risks, Kuwaitis continue to live in a culture and
context of abundance. For e xample, Kuwaitis consume on average more than
3,000 calories per day, cont ributing to one of the highest obe sity rates (43 percent
of the population) in the wo rld (The Economist Econo mic Intelligence Unit,
2014). Food waste is also hi gh in Kuwait, with nearly 60 percent of households
surveyed reporting tha t they regularly waste fo od (Aljamal & Bagneid, 201 2,
p. 20). Similarly, a stud y on the impact of subsidi es on water usage and waste in
Kuwait found that because “the price of water is hea vily subsidized,” the
“quantity of water used in K uwait is higher than in coun tries with abundant
water resources” (Alshawaf, 2008, p. vii). The Glob al Footprint Network
estimates that the aver age person in Kuwait consumes more than 22 times more
resources than the coun try supports, creating a signif‌icant “ecologica l def‌icit”
(Al-Menaie, 2014, p. 50).
The following pages use a case study of Kuwait to understand challenges to
national security that an oil rich, water poor, food import dependent nation faces.
This article focuses on research conducted in Kuwait (2009, 2010, 2011, and 2014),
and the f‌indings are part of a larger comparative study, which includes f‌ieldwork
on food security in Saudi Arabia (2012–2013), United Arab Emirates (2010, 2011,
and 2013), and Qatar (2011, 2012, and 2013). Regional patterns are present in the
data, and form the foundation for a book-length manuscript under construction
by the author.
In this article, it is argued that the Kuwaiti government, by distributing oil
wealth and patronage to citizens, chooses a course of action that is ultimately
unhealthy for citizens, as subsidizing prices encourages overuse and waste. The
economic sustainability of this approach is questionable given volatile oil prices,
the increased burden on budgets to provide for expected consumption, and the
corresponding health and environmental risks of entitlement policies. This study
concludes that Kuwaiti national security depends on f‌inding workable solutions
to weight and waste problems.
256 World Medical & Health Policy, 7:3

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