Waste not want not

The answer to food security is partly not producing more but wasting less.
02 February 2016

Interview with 

Tristram Stuart, Feedback


A pig


It's all very well eating more adventurously. But what about the food that we waste? Tristram Stuart is the founder of the organisation FeedBack, which looks at how much food goes to waste and what we need to do to tackle the problem. He explained why this is a priority to Felicity Bedford... 

Tristram - We've been told by some of the major international institutions that we need to increase food production by 50, 60, some even 100% to feed the human population expected on the planet by 2050.  The claim is that we can increase this production whilst decreasing environmental impact.  In fact, the main way in which we are increasing global food production is by extending the amount of land that we currently put under cultivation.  That means chopping down forests and draining wetlands.  We know that a third of all the food currently being produced is wasted somewhere between fields and people's plates.  It's wasted on farms and factories, in supermarkets and restaurants and, of course, in our own homes.  That is a very easy place to start if what we need to do is increase food availability and, of course, it can be accomplished without increasing production per se.

Felicity - Surely because of the nature of globalised food production and distribution, we need, to play devil's advocate here a little bit, we need to be producing more food than is needed by the global population?

Tristram - That's absolutely right.  If you want to guarantee food security, you don't just produce exactly what a population needs.  It won't take long for you to come across a bad harvest and then you're in dire straights.  Human civilisations have, since the very beginning of agriculture, aimed quite rightly to produce surplus.  The problem is that that very basic instinct has now got to such an extent that the surpluses we produce are so far in excess of what is actually required to guarantee food security.  To give you an example, in a rich country like the United States, there is available in the shops and restaraunts enough food to feed twice the population of that country.  We have such an enormous buffer between us and real hunger if we used our resources more efficiently.

Felicity - We're going to inevitably have some food waste.  Do you have any proposal for how that should be dealt with better?

Tristram - Yes, absolutely.  One of the real opportunities that we're currently missing out on across the whole of Europe, across Australia and in half of the United States of America is that, currently, legislation prevents what humans have been doing with food waste for thousands of years, and that is to feed it back to our livestock. Instead, we grow grains and soy in South America to feed livestock in Europe and across the western world.  Traditionally, livestock would be fed with our leftovers; that's what pigs and chickens are for within our agro economic system.  But since 2001, after the foot and mouth outbreak was blamed on a miscreant swill feeder, who wasn't treating the food waste according to the law.  The European rules made it impossible to feed any catering waste or any waste that had been handled under the same roof as meat to be fed to livestock.  Now, I can understand and foresee the health concerns but, put in place a good regulatory system, it's absolutely the case that we can have a safe system for recycling food waste.  And, indeed, a very recent Cambridge University study was published showing just how much land we could save if we fed food waste to our livestock instead of importing soy from South America.  A piece of forest the size of Wales each year could be saved.

Felicity - Will it need more scientific evidence or simply more willing policymakers in the first place?

Tristram - It needs both.  Absolutely getting microbiologists to confirm the best possible, most energy efficient and safest way of treating food waste, and ensuring that veterinarians and nutritionists can analyse the value of any particular food waste stream for animal feed.  All of these things will help but the figures are so glaringly, obviously in favour of feeding food waste to pigs.  It really comes down to a question of what faith we can have in a regulatory system that, in the past, went wrong and I would emphasise that we're not advocating for a return to the bad old days, before 2001 but a proper modern system; a little bit analogous to the system that guarantees food safety in the human food supply chain.  We depend on a system that feeds hundreds of millions of people every day to guarantee food security - we need something similar for livestock feed.

Felicity - These bigger issues of global waste; is that something that can only be solved with policies?

Tristram - No.  I've seen in my campaigning life such dramatic changes on these very issues that it gives me hope that, with a bit of energy, we can wake up the giant, the giant that is the global citizenship.  If we want to make food available to people who really need it, we can really help to do that by doing something quite simple which is to enjoy food that we have and not throw it away.  That's really such a simple thing that everyone can practice in the own homes and, indeed, demand that the businesses that they give money to every day, also comply with that really basic ethical criterion, which is not to dispose of food when it's perfectly edible.


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