It started with a sundried tomato loaf. When Tristram Stuart was 15 years old he bought some pigs, and started feeding them food that was being thrown away by local shops, a farm and his school in Sussex.
“One morning when I was feeding my pigs I noticed a particularly tasty-looking sundried tomato loaf that used to crop up from time to time,” he recalled with relish. “I grabbed hold of it, sat down and ate my breakfast with my pigs.”
This was Stuart’s first act of what he later learned to call freeganism, the collection and eating of discarded food. It was suddenly obvious: the solution to food waste was simply to sit down and eat it rather than throwing it away.
More than 20 years on, he is now one of the world’s best known and most effective campaigners against food waste. He has written two acclaimed books, founded the campaign group, Feedback, and travelled to countries around the globe to research, publicise and sometimes solve gross examples of food waste.
He has met with ministers and key decision-makers in the UK and Europe, and is an expert adviser to the United Nations Committee on World Food Security. This month he was in to Glasgow to address the Scottish Resources Conference on his continuing crusade against the “global scandal” of food waste.
He hasn’t lost his freegan roots, which have often turned him into an “unofficial bin inspector”. In his online Ted Talk in 2012, which has been watched more than 1.2 million times, he recounted his quest to find out what happened to the crusts of sliced loaves used to make sandwiches.
Sandwiches on sale in supermarkets and fast food outlets never use crusts, so where do they go? He found out that one of the main sandwich suppliers to Marks & Spencer was simply throwing out the crusts, plus a slice at each end of every loaf, resulting in 13,000 slices of fresh bread going to waste every day.
He illustrated this with a picture of a large skip full of discarded crusts and slices. At least, he told Towards Zero, his highlighting of such egregious waste had prompted a rapid change for the better.
The company discovered that because it kept the bread apart from meat fillings for sandwiches, it was able to send it to feed farm animals. According to Stuart, this saved £100,000 a year in waste disposal costs and was “a good deal better” than dumping it as landfill.
Another battle in his war on wasted crusts was fought with the High Street fast food chain, Pret A Manger. They prepared sandwiches in store, and there used to be a “colossal waste”, he said.
“Since I first engaged with Pret A Manger back in 2009, they have changed their system. Now instead of having a big chunk of crust going into the bin, it's literally a shaving off the end.” That was much better, but there was “still room for improvement”, he argued.
There’s no reason why crusts can’t be used to make sandwiches for people to eat. “I like to eat them,” he said. “I have tried to propose that people open a line of crusty sandwiches.” So far, however, no-one has taken up his proposal.
Born in London in 1977, Tristram Stuart lived much of his youth with his father, a teacher, in Ashdown Forest in rural Sussex. “I'd been filled with stories of the pre-war farm that my father had grown up on,” he said.
“I loved that old traditional way of producing food where you are just converting the stuff that was there in the environment into something people can eat without doing any damage. I wanted to start recreating some of that.”
He studied English literature at Cambridge University, then worked on an agricultural project in Kosovo and at an environmental centre in New Delhi. His first book in 2006 was a cultural history of vegetarianism called ‘The Bloodless Revolution’, though he is not himself a vegetarian.
But it was his second book in 2009, ‘Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal’, that really determined his subsequent trajectory. Media appearances, lectures and advisory posts followed, and he became heavily involved in the work of Feedback, most famous for its ‘Feeding the 5,000’ mass events where food that would have been wasted is cooked and fed to those who need it.
Since he started campaigning, he believes there have been huge strides forward, with a 21 per cent reduction in household food waste across the UK since 2007. “A large part of that can be attributed to food waste awareness raising,” he said.
“This can connect people to the fact that our food choices on a daily basis directly affect the rate of deforestation in the world, the extinction of species and global hunger. People care about these things because food waste intersects with most people's value systems.”
There had been some “quite dramatic” reductions in food waste by companies. He cited the example of green beans from Kenya, where he had persuaded the supermarket chain Tesco to change its packaging to allow different sized beans, resulting in a 30 per cent reduction in waste.
The issue had also moved from the margins to the centre of policy internationally. At a major summit in New York in September, the United Nations agreed to make cutting food waste one of its sustainable development goals. By 2030, it aims to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains”.
Despite the progress, Stuart pointed out that it was still far too easy to find “truly shocking” instances of waste up and down the food chain. On a visit to Peru in September, behind a fruit packing shed he found a 1,000-tonne dump of discarded minneolas, a juicy cross between tangerines and grapefruits.
“They were just rotting because they didn't meet the very stringent cosmetic standards of the European supermarkets. They had minor skin blemishes that have nothing to do with the quality of the fruit,” he said.
“Why is it that UK supermarkets are still behaving in a way towards their Peruvian citrus growers that directly and totally gratuitously contribute to the waste of perfectly good food? All in a country with two and a half million hungry people where water shortages are still increasing,” he added.
“It is really time for these businesses not just to shift things around the edges of their policies but to do wholesale reviews of food waste throughout their supply chain with a view to eliminating it wherever they possibly can.”
Stuart criticised the British Retail Consortium for repeatedly insisting that supermarkets wasted a tiny fraction of the amount of food wasted in the home. This was “misleading”, he said, because it failed to take account of the waste caused in Peru, Kenyan and other countries by having to meet supermarket specifications.
The solution, he argued, was legislation in the UK and in the European Union to compel supermarkets to act. He started a petition on the campaign website, Avaaz, calling on leaders “to pass laws obliging supermarkets to donate unsold food, publish their waste data, and establishing authorities to investigate supermarkets' unfair treatment of suppliers”. It has so far been signed by over a million people.
Many food businesses would welcome this kind of legislation because it would help create a level playing field, he said. But in the longer term, the change needed to be more radical.
“People often assume the global food system is set up to feed people. That's not actually the case. It was set up to make money by turning nature in unsustainable ways into cash by mining natural resources,” he said.
“If we want to leave a planet to our descendants that is healthy enough to feed them and their descendants, if we want the wonderful variety of species to survive beyond the end of this century, we have to put measures in place to protect those things from the profit-making process.”
It was wrong to argue that in order to feed the nine billion people expected on the planet by 2050 we needed to double food production, Stuart maintained. “We already waste a third of the world's food production and in rich countries we already eat a good deal more than is good for us, particularly of resource-intensive products like meat and dairy.”
What was really needed was nothing less than a food waste revolution, he argued. “We have to use every single tool in the toolbox to try and turn that trend around, both for the sake of the human population and the health of the planet.”
That is Stuart’s life’s work, and it may prevent him from writing another book as he like to do in the near future. “I think at the moment we have probably less than one per cent chance of succeeding,” he said.
“But that doesn’t mean that we should give up and go home. We all have to do whatever we can, whether it’s where we buy our food, whether it’s eating our leftovers, or whether it's getting out there and trying to drive policy change at the highest level. Everyone eats and everyone has the power and the responsibility to do whatever they can to change the food system.”