Ending food waste in the developed world

UK activist Tristram Stuart believes in grass-roots campaigns that help stop food waste from the ground up.

Tristram Stuart was 15 and living with his father on a small farm in southern England when the absurdity of food waste hit him.

He was keen to populate the farm with pigs, but reluctant to pay for animal feed. So he chose to feed them scraps from his school cafeteria, and leftovers from the local bakers, grocers and open-air street market.

Tristram Stuart Profile Pic
Tristram Stuart

“I realized that most food I was collecting was fit for human consumption and shouldn’t have been thrown away,” says 37-year-old Stuart. “I was just scraping the surface of a hemorrhaging of food at every link in the supply chain.”

We already grow enough food for 12 billion. There are some regions of the world where increased production would be beneficial, but globally speaking that is not what our primary objective is.”
— Tristram Stuart

That realization sparked an obsession that has made Stuart one of the world’s leading food waste activists. Today the Cambridge University graduate works with the European Commission (EC) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and heads at least four separate food waste campaigns.

Stuart says his idea is simple: The way food is produced is wasteful, expensive and destructive. Waste occurs throughout the supply chain, he contends, from fishing boats that annually discard 2.3 million tons of fish in the North Sea and North Atlantic to meet European quotas, to farmers who throw out misshapen vegetables deemed unsuitable for supermarkets, to consumers filling fridges with food they will never eat.

While food waste happens throughout the global food chain, Stuart focuses his campaigns on developed nations where he says profligacy, complex food chains and the desire for cosmetic perfection are largely to blame. In his 2009 book, “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal,” Stuart analyzed data on food supply and consumption to conclude that one-third of all food produced globally–or around 1.3 billion tons–is wasted. In the United States alone, he says, that equates to 40 million tons.

For Stuart the future of food security isn’t about increasing supply, but instead using the food we already produce more efficiently.

“I am critical of the discourse based on the premise that we will have 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, and how on earth are we going to feed them without increasing production,” he says. “We already grow enough food for 12 billion. There are some regions of the world where increased production would be beneficial, but globally speaking that is not what our primary objective is.”

Making haste against waste

Stuart came to prominence as a “freegan,” part of a movement that seeks to expose inequities of waste by encouraging people to live on food discarded by supermarkets. For years he toured back alleys and parking lots, liberating milk cartons, pizzas, yogurts thrown away by retailers before their use-by dates.

He went on to launch the international Feeding the 5,000 campaign–a series of one-day events in which 5,000 people get a lunch made from food that would otherwise have been wasted. Since 1999, lunches have been held in London, New York, Paris, Amsterdam and Sydney, along with Nantes, France, and Edinburgh, Scotland, serving tens of thousands of meals. The Feeding the 5,000 campaign has won the backing of the EC and UNEP, and in February 2014 Stuart served a five-course meal to UNEP delegates at a conference in Nairobi, Kenya, using 1.7 tons of local food rejected by European buyers.

In 2009 came a new campaign to persuade British supermarkets to sell “ugly” fruit and vegetables that would otherwise be discarded or fed to animals. In 2012, he says, 300,000 tons of produce were saved.

Stuart also runs the UK Gleaning Network of volunteers, who harvest food that would otherwise be left to rot because of overproduction by a farm or because the food fails to meet retail cosmetic standards.

But asked what single change in the developed world would do the most good, Stuart goes back to his childhood.

“The single biggest opportunity for policy change that could make a difference to food waste is to change the law on what we feed pigs,” he says.

New rules about pig feed were imposed after a major foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001. The infection was traced to contaminated imported meat that had not been heat treated before it was fed to pigs on a farm in Northumberland in northern England. The EC responded by banning the feeding of any meat to pigs even when boiled, and similar policies are in place in Australia and some U.S. states.

Stuart argues that this goes against thousands of years of good, safe animal husbandry. “All you need to do is to ensure the food waste is collected to a centralized food plant and brought up to temperature,” he says. “At the moment we import 40 million tons of soya from South America to Europe to feed our livestock. That is contributing to biodiversity loss, climate change and hydrological cycle interruptions. These are crops that we could be feeding to humans.” In fact, UNEP calculates that the world produces enough virgin crops for animals to feed 3 billion people.

Changing technology and attitudes

Stuart also sees a role for genetically modified food in the fight against food waste, albeit with a few caveats. “The problem is that the GM crops that have come to market to date have not been about needing to feed the world. They have been about increasing the profits of large agribusiness monopolies,” he says. But “that’s very different from saying that GM itself should be avoided,” he adds.

Blight-resistant potatoes, for instance, could be a viable option because Europe has no wild population of potatoes with which a GM variety could accidentally cross-fertilize. Built-in resistance to blight could reduce the need for fungicides and cut the risk of farmers losing entire crops, he says.

Stuart says he is more skeptical of claims that packaging changes can cut food waste significantly, although he acknowledges that “in certain circumstances packaging can help to prevent food from being damaged or extend its shelf life and could theoretically reduce food waste.”

But he adds: “The idea that packaging reduces food waste assumes a particular type of chain that lends itself to packaging, which is not necessarily the way in which we should be envisaging the global food produce system going.”

Instead, Stuart says he sees technological advances in foods and packaging as a potentially useful tool to cut waste after consumers and producers undergo a fundamental cultural shift.

“We need to change people’s attitudes and make it socially unacceptable to waste food,” he says. “Once we are convinced of that, we can start using these tools in ways to enforce our belief that wasting food is wrong. But until we believe that, we will just buy our lettuces and leave them for an extra two days in the fridge because the shelf life is longer, and then throw them away.”

David Derbyshire

David Derbyshire is a freelance environment and science writer based in Winchester, United Kingdom. He is a former environment editor of the Daily Mail, and his freelance work has been published in The Guardian, The Times, and other newspapers.

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