Why It’s ‘Phenomenally Easy’ to Solve the World’s Food Waste Problem
Charity projects aimed at redistributing unwanted food, restaurant initiatives using surplus produce, and zero-waste farms have sprung up in response to the problem, but there’s still a long way to go before we reach anything like a sustainable food system.
So, what can the average consumer actually do to fight food waste? According to Tristram Stuart, London-based campaigner and founder of food waste charity Feedback, it’s “phenomenally easy to change the world.”
MUNCHIES reached out to Tristram to find out why individuals have the power to stop supermarkets from chucking perfectly edible beans and force global institutions to stick to food sustainability goals.
MUNCHIES: Hi Tristram, how have you seen attitudes change towards food waste since you started campaigning?
Tristram Stuart: I started campaigning on food waste when no supermarket had overt policies on food waste, no government had food waste initiatives, and none of the international institutions had it as a priority. Public awareness and media coverage was at a zero point, I’m not kidding. It was nowhere as an issue.
It is now embedded within the main global institutions, like the United Nations with their Sustainable Development Goal to halve food waste. Governments like the United States ratified that target of halving food waste by 2030—you cannot be a big food corporation without having a whole series of food waste strategies. Public awareness and media coverage has increased and many social entrepreneurs, myself included with Toast ale [beer made with surplus bread], have leapt into these spaces to build businesses.
What’s the journey been like?
It has been phenomenally easy to change the world. I say that not to blow my own trumpet—it has been collectivized action from around the world. I say that because it’s so important to make people realize that we are empowered to change the food system. We can, through our daily choices, change the food system from what it is at the moment, which is the single most destructive process that humans have done historically and are doing to the planet.
So, how exactly can the average person be empowered to tackle the world’s food waste problem?
By buying less food to start with. Studies suggest that consumers in rich countries like the US and the UK regularly waste between 20 and 40 percent of the food that they buy. That suggests that we’re just putting too much in our supermarket trolleys. You might want to avoid going to supermarkets because the whole point of supermarkets is that they’ve invested billions of dollars into working out what triggers your impulse to take something off the shelf, even if you don’t need it.
It’s also about ensuring that when you do buy something, you become the custodians of that food and ensure that at some point it gets eaten.
We also have the power, and I would argue therefore the responsibility, to demand change from the system. We have a petition out at the moment with Feedback in which we’re making a single, really obvious ask, which is for the reformation of food labels.
At the moment, the date labels on food are inherently confusing, there isn’t any uniformity in how date labels are used. There are more than 50 ways in which food is being date labelled with no more of comprehending them. And that’s just in one supermarket.
Most people, obviously, don’t understand what these labels mean which results in them throwing away food. That means people are wasting money, wasting resources, wasting good food on an everyday basis. In all my years of campaigning, I’ve never come across something so wrong.
But people are still going to use supermarkets and buy these products, so how do you change things then?
You have to shift the system. Take the example of the Kenyan beans. I first went out there in 2013 by invitation of United Nations Environment Program to organize a meal for world environment ministers in a country with millions of hungry people, with food that would have otherwise been wasted in Kenya. We found farmers there growing beans for UK and European supermarkets were wasting up to half of the food that they were growing, most of it perfectly good for consumption.
The pinnacle of that was the most perfect beans, at the end of the line, had 15 to 20 percent chopped off just to fit them into stupid 9-centimeter punnets that supermarkets were asking farmers to use.
We campaigned on that and changed the system. Tesco now supplies entire beans because they’ve realized that consumers prefer it, shelf life is enormously extended because you’re cutting into the bean, and we cut food waste overnight by 30 percent. That is changing a specific supply chain for a specific number of supermarkets on a specific product. But you trigger a challenge to that system. You are bringing that system into disrepute which makes supermarkets take a review of all of their systems, and might make customers take their money elsewhere.
Where does the redistribution of waste food fit in with the solution?
If you’ve got surplus food and it’s fit for consumption on the one hand and you’ve got hungry people on the other, it’s an obvious solution to put those two together. The gleaning network we’ve set up in the UK and what we’ve catalyzed in other countries now is about recovering food that’s perfectly good and getting it to people who really need it, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables that get wasted on farms.
Of course, that’s a good thing to do but we need to start that kind of work on the premise that it’s not going to solve food waste by itself and it’s certainly isn’t going to solve food poverty by itself.
We do that kind of community activity as a way of drawing attention to the fundamental causes of that food waste so as to put pressure on the corporates to stop wasting that food in the first place. But it’s also fun. We’re trying to have a party. We’re going to take on the corporate powers by having a better party.
Thanks for talking with me, Tristram.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.