There is no reason for hunger in this world

British food activist Tristam Stuart

A third of all food produced globally never actually ends up on anyone’s plate. Of all the complex ecological and ethical problems in the world, this is one we can do something about, according to British food activist Tristam Stuart. His voice is increasingly being heard by politicians, supermarkets and academics all over the world.

Stuart’s concern about food waste arose when, as a fifteen year old kid he started to raise pigs. Stuart lived with his dad on a farm in Sussex, where his dad took care of the vegetable garden while Stuart looked after the chickens and pigs. He fed them scraps and food waste he collected locally. ‘That was when I first noticed how much edible food from schools, shops and farms ended up in the bin.’ One of his political demands today is to allow pigs to be fed with leftovers again. This was outlawed in Europe in 2001 due to the outbreak of Mad Cow disease (BSE) which led to a mass importation of soy scraps (40 million tonnes annually) coming from the fast-expanding soy plantations in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.

All together against food wastage

I meet Tristam Stuart in central London, in the roof garden of the building where he has his office. He currently breeds pigs in London; eight of them, which he feeds with food waste, fruit and vegetable leftovers or grain residue from breweries. In November, these pigs will be killed for the Feed the 5000 dinner on Trafalgar Square. This campaign, taking place in cities all over the world, has seen Stuart set up collective meals and public banquets, prepared with high quality food disposed of by supermarkets and restaurants, food which farmers couldn’t sell to their suppliers or which stayed behind on fields after the harvest.

All passers-by are invited to join the table. In February, Stuart organised a dinner in Nairobi for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and currently Think Eat Save, a UNEP campaign against food waste, is travelling the globe.

June saw a Feed the 5000 dinner in Amsterdam, in July it went to Lisbon and Sydney and soon New York will be on the programme. In every city, Stuart brings together a network of local organisations, concerned about food wastage to set up the event. Even the University of Wageningen, a leading authority on agriculture and food, invited Stuart on 1st October to share his story. Soon, Brussels will set up a Feed the 5000 dinner.

An Inconvenient Truth

Worldwide a third of all food produced is wasted. In rich European countries and the United States, this can run up to 50%. Stuart uncovered these facts during the research for his book Waste. Uncovering the global food scandal (2009). These numbers have since been acknowledged by the UN and Europe. A McKinsey Global Institute report (Mobilizing for a resource revolution) also revealed that everyday, 10 million tonnes of edible food is wasted, a third of all food. These losses take place throughout the whole food supply chain. In the South, a lot of food is wasted due to insufficient transport and storage infrastructure. In richer countries, losses occur mainly during processing, packaging and distribution of food, as well as at the end of the chain, where consumers don’t eat what they buy. In the US, this adds up to 1,500 Euro a month for a family of four. Preventing this would not only aid the fight against hunger (in 2011, 4 million people were hit by famine in Ethiopia - something the nutritional value of Italy’s food waste could compensate for). It could also reduce the enormous waste of farm subsidies and the demand on labour, water, land and resources, especially as increasing pressure on land leads to more conflicts.

Solvable problem

‘Everyone can contribute their share to reduce the pressure on our ecosystems and our impact on nature’, says Tristam. ‘This is something we can influence from home, but even more important is that as citizens we have the power to call for change in the food industry. As consumers, we can demand that the food industry provide us with food which is produced to the standards we uphold. We have to let them know that we do not agree with the waste, that we are prepared to eat fruit and vegetables that do not look like the standard, uniform products we see on the shelves. That we are prepared to not just eat the steak of an animal, but also the head, legs and ears. We can use our power and our money to stop these practices.’

Supermarkets are the core of today’s food provision. They put their demands to farmers, who often end up with large amounts of fresh produce leftover, merely because they do not conform to the supermarket’s strict standards.

In the UK, theGleaning Network was set up, a group of volunteers who gather leftovers on the field after a harvest. Supermarkets often shift a lot of the burden to farmers by giving them an estimate of how much they will buy, but then allowing these estimates to change later, depending on actual demand. The farmer is left with the surplus. In 2008 the Competition Commission looked into this and judged that this practice is ‘passing on of risks’ with ‘moral damages’ as a consequence. The party that instigated the damage or waste is not carrying the cost of it, and it does not take any responsibility to reduce the waste. This led to a new law appointing supervisors upholding this agreement between farmers and supermarkets.

For some years now certain supermarkets have put “ugly” fruit and vegetables on display. These are not the standard size, look less fresh or might have been slightly damaged. ‘The fun thing about this ‘food revolution’ is how beneficial it is for your purse, as opposed to campaigns on fair trade or biological products, which often are more expensive for the consumer’. Obviously it would be better if we could all eat organic food and reduce the food supply chain by buying from the farm around the corner. But with this campaign we don’t want to just preach to the converted. We would like for the whole production system to change and bring in all the big supermarket chains.’

Food security

Even the European Commission started to take action and declared 2013 the year against food waste. According to the Commission, an average of 300 kilos of food is wasted annually per person, of which 200 kilos is still edible. Europe wants to reduce this number by half by 2025, from farm to fork by stimulating small and mid-size farms and production for local markets. The European Parliament approved a resolution on this.

Food has always been an important theme for the European Union, both on food safety and security. The concerns around food led to the introduction of expiry dates on packages.

Stuart: ‘food security is one of the success stories of human history. We managed to build up a sustainable buffer between us and hunger, and anyone who has gone hungry in the past, knows what that means’.

Stuart shows a graph from his book. ‘This page and a half represents 20% of all the work that went into my book’ he points out. The graph demonstrates the food supply of a country (in supermarkets, restaurant or farms) in comparison to their respective GNP. ‘As countries grow richer, they invest more in food as a buffer for bad times. A lot of countries possess 150% to 200% more food than their average need.’ Congo and Eritrea on the other hand are below 100%. If we include crops that are being used for cattle feed, rich countries quickly reach up to 300 or 400 percent. ‘From a food security point of view, such a big surplus is not necessary’, says Stuart. Since we are operating in a system that has reached its ecological limits on food production and which is facing increasing pressure from climate change, this is a counterproductive surplus. Stuart’s second conclusion: ‘There is no reason for hunger and not even for an increased production of food. What we do need to do, is organise the system differently.”

Everybody happy

The crisis helps to achieve this. Since 1st September, supermarkets in Greece are allowed to sell food products in special sections, which are approaching or have just passed their ‘best before’ date. These products are labelled as ‘food with reduced shelf life’. People who are hit hard by the crisis can buy products at a third of their original price. This is only allowed for individual shoppers, these shelves are not for restaurants or catering companies. The Greek Minister for Development Costis Chatzidakis had to resort to this new rule as dropping prices of basic staples was not possible.

Next year a similar supermarket will open in the US, selling ‘expired’ products, which have reached their expiry date or ready-meals which have been prepared with such ingredients. This initiative was set up by Dough Rauch, whose Urban Food Initiative will open up this supermarket in 2014 in Dorchester, a working-class area of Boston, Massachusetts, a food desert.

In Belgium, Delhaize wants to tackle food waste more systematically. Head of Communication Roel Dekelver: ‘there is an increasing offer of smaller portions in the fresh food section – a quarter of a pie, small packets of cheese – addressing the increasing number of singles and small families.’ The supermarket has been delivering its food leftovers to food banks for a while, but recently also created the innovative project Zero Food Waste, with support of the Flemish Minister of Poverty Reduction, Ingrid Lieten. The goal is to offer products approaching their expiry date for free to social organisations. Following three pilots in Limburg, a cooperative project with several social organisations just started in Lokeren this summer. A handful of volunteers from Ontmoetingshuis De Moazoart, a meeting-place initiative of Community Development East Flanders, can go to Delhaize each week to take from the shelves the yellow labelled products expiring that same day. De Moazoart uses these products to make soup and breakfast twice a week and a hot meal for around 60 visitors to De Moazoart every two weeks. They also offer these products to visitors as snacks during trainings or other activities. The remaining products are distributed to food banks in Lokeren and Zele - where each month around 100 families receive a free food package – or other social organisations. The initiative was set up in cooperation with the Federal Agency for Food Safety. Fourteen Delhaize supermarkets and approximately 30 independent Delhaize shops (Proxy, AD and Shop&Go) have already joined.

Colruyt created a food waste policy as well, executed in three tracks. ‘We start with prevention, through stock management for fresh fruit and vegetables, which is monitored each day, sometimes several times a day’, says Tony De Bock, Director of Product Promotion at Colruyt. ‘In addition to this, our own trucks deliver products to the food banks, where they are processed professionally and according to food safety standards. Old bread is used as cattle feed, expired food and vegetables are fermented. A third track we want to develop further is to raise customer awareness about the dates on a package. A “best before” date does not mean that it can no longer be eaten after that date. There is still room for improvement, also for us.’

A matter of respect

Doing research for his book around the world, Stuart was thoroughly impressed by the many innovative initiatives against food waste he encountered in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. He was most struck by the lifestyle of the Uighur people in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Their culture has a food waste taboo, he noticed. Not a single grain was lost, each bone was sucked dry, each plate was scraped clean. ‘The amount of waste a society produces depends on cultural norms. Legal, fiscal and logistical measures can help to reduce food waste, but the efficiency of those measures largely depends on what a society deems acceptable. In that sense we are the ones who control the amount of waste. If we – like the Uighur people, living in a desert – experience food as an invaluable resource, we would see it in a very different light.’ After all, states Stuart, food should not be a commodity. ‘It is the link between man and earth. Land is our most valuable resource. Our destiny depends on how we treat it.’

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