Tristram Stuart’s food waste awakening came in his teen years, a by-product of his decision to raise pigs for pocket money (see below). The awareness he gained regarding the scale of the problem became the catalyst for Stuart’s prize-winning book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin, 2009) and the creation of Feedback, an NGO which works to change social attitudes, demonstrate innovative solutions, and tackle food waste at the global scale. In this guest post, Stuart highlights the key issues that create food waste and suggests tactics individuals can employ to be part of the solution.
The job of uncovering the global food waste scandal started for me when I was 15 years old. I bought some pigs. I was living in Sussex. And I started to feed them in the most traditional and environmentally friendly way. I went to my school kitchen, and I said, “Give me the scraps that my school friends have turned their noses up at.” I went to the local baker and took their stale bread. I went to the local greengrocer, and I went to a farmer who was throwing away potatoes because they were the wrong shape or size for supermarkets. This was great. My pigs turned that food waste into delicious pork. I sold that pork to my school friends’ parents, and I made a good pocket money in addition to my teenage allowance.
But I noticed that most of the food that I was giving my pigs was in fact fit for human consumption, and that I was only scratching the surface, and that right the way up the food supply chain, in supermarkets, greengrocers, bakers, in our homes, in factories and farms, we were hemorrhaging out food. We’re talking about good, fresh food that is being wasted on a colossal scale.
More Food Than We Need
If you include not just the food that ends up in shops and restaurants, but also the food that people feed to livestock, the maize, the soy, the wheat, that humans could eat but choose to fatten livestock instead to produce increasing amounts of meat and dairy products, what you find is that most rich countries have between three and four times the amount of food that their population needs to feed itself. A country like America has four times the amount of food that it needs.
The tragedy is that farmers throw away sometimes a third or even more of their harvest because of the cosmetic standards we, the consumer, have come to expect in our grocery stores. Potatoes that are cosmetically imperfect, all going for pigs. Parsnips that are too small for supermarket specifications, tomatoes in Tenerife, oranges in Florida, bananas in Ecuador, all being discarded.
Food Waste is a Global Phenomenon
In developing countries, farm-level food waste is compounded by losses of food from poor storage, handling, and refrigeration. However, even in developing countries, food that is perfectly fit for human consumption ends up unsold as a result of the actions taken by those further up the supply chain – brokers, exporters, importers, retailers, and consumers. My own organisation, Feedback, has recently uncovered how, in Kenya, the policies of European supermarkets and their direct suppliers cause Kenyan smallholders to waste around 40% of what they grow for European markets – even in a country with millions of hungry people, with farmers reporting being forced into cycles of debt as a result of uncompensated order cancellations so that they can pay their workers and send their children to school.
How Abundance Impacts Waste
At the retail level of the food supply chain, American supermarkets lose between five and 10 percent of their food between goods-in and the till, according to data from the USDA; I haven’t seen data regarding Canadian supermarkets specifically, but the same problems may exist. Moderate levels of waste is often seen by managers as a sign that stores are successfully creating the image of cornucopian abundance that they believe consumers need to see. A hard-wired human response to glut is to take more: this is the marketing technique that results in us buying far more food than we’re going to eat, week after week.
And yes, we’re doing it in our homes as well. According to Metro Vancouver’s research, over half of the food, liquid and dairy disposed of from the region’s households should have been eaten. Most of that is because we’re buying an abundance of food with no plan for how we are going to use it, and we often don’t store our food properly.
The Individual Approach to Solutions
Fortunately we can all take action. It starts with being mindful. Campaigns like Metro Vancouver’s Love Food – Hate Waste help us by providing simple, practical steps anyone can take to start reducing their food waste today. Right now.
Let the businesses you deal with know that you’re concerned about food waste. Ask them what they’re doing about it.
Tell your elected officials to remove any barriers so that those businesses can direct more food to the people who most need it. If perfectly edible food can be redirected to charitable redistribution, then redistributors should be allowed and encouraged to use it. If it is not fit for human consumption, then it’s likely that it is fit to feed to livestock, especially pigs and chickens.
And pay attention to what you’re doing with food in your home. It really is too good to waste.
Feeding the 5000
A silver lining: the quest to tackle food waste has kicked off globally. Feeding the 5,000 is an event I first organized in 2009. We fed 5,000 people all on food that otherwise would have been wasted. Since then, it’s happened again in London, it’s happening internationally, and it’s coming to Metro Vancouver on May 27. It’s a way of organizations coming together to celebrate food, to say the best thing to do with food is to eat and enjoy it, with #nofoodwasted.
For the sake of the planet we live on, for the sake of our children, for the sake of all the other organisms that share our planet with us, we are a terrestrial animal, and we depend on our land for food. At the moment, we are trashing our land to grow food that no one eats.
For more information, including menus, recipes, food storage tips, and facts
about shelf life and best before dates, visit the Love Food – Hate Waste website:
You can also follow the campaign on social media at: