Meet the king of food waste

Campaigner Tristram Stuart tells Jack Thompson how his childhood pig taught him the value of food waste and why we should challenge the status quo of overconsumption.

If you’ve ever watched a documentary on food waste, chances are you’ll have seen Tristram Stuart featuring as the resident expert. Just Eat It for Amazon, a TedTalk on The Scandal of Food WasteHugh’s War on Waste on the BBC are to name a few in a rich filmography. 

The origins of this steadfast commitment to food waste can be clearly traced back to his childhood living on his father’s farm in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex. Apparently, it all started with a pig. 

“I bought my own sow, and started breeding pigs, and I got some chickens and ferrets; my idea was to earn some pocket money by running a little farm company. It was the heyday of my childhood,” Stuart reminisces. 

Quickly discovering how expensive animal feed can be, he started exploring alternative avenues of nourishing his animals. “I knew that the traditional way of rearing pigs and chickens was to feed them food waste” he says. 

Evidently a resourceful and determined character, a young Stuart went about scouring his local community for food waste for his pigs, before it became illegal in the wake of the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. 

“I started asking around and my school kitchens provided me with their waste buckets. Every day, I would come back with food waste, and the pigs went absolutely wild for it,” explains Stuart, or ‘Farmer Stuart’ as he was known by his school friends. 

Stuart credits his childhood pigs for revealing the global food waste scandal.

“It was a glorious time, but I noticed that a lot of the food I was collecting was perfectly fit for human consumption. I’d been to the supermarkets and tried to convince them to give me their food. They didn’t even want to admit that they had food waste.

I was going around the back and seeing huge skips full of perfectly good food, locked and trucked off to landfill. I was outraged.” 

This combination of shock around the sheer scale of waste, and the satisfaction from redistributing became the recipe for Stuart’s future career as a food waste activist and campaigner.

Aside from making documentaries and authoring books on food waste, Stuart founded the leading food waste campaigning group Feedback, as well as business Toast Ale, a company that upcycles waste bread into beer. 

Bread is one of the most commonly thrown away products in the UK, with 1.2 billion crusts binned every year. Inspired by these shocking figures and a trip to a brewery in Belgium that uses bread instead of malt to brew beer, Stuart co-founded the pioneering brewery that claims it has so far saved over two million slices of bread.

Keen to highlight the impact that food waste campaigners like himself have had in the last decade, Stuart stresses: “It’s unrecognisable if you compare the difference between then and now. Back then it just wasn’t on the agenda and there was no public awareness. We should celebrate the fact that in the UK per capita, people have reduced food waste by a third since 2007.” 

Stuart believes this last stat in particular should be more well-known; he worked it out using Wrap data that shows an 18 per cent reduction in total household waste in its latest report, as he believes per capita figures are a greater indicator of individual behaviour change.

“There are very few mass behaviour changes like this, and sure that still leaves a lot of food waste and we’ve got to improve, but that is a monumental achievement,” he says.

What does Stuart attribute this success to? On top of activism and government action, he declares “we made it cool to tackle food waste”. 

Harnessing the status and creativity of high-profile chefs such as Thomasina Miers, Jamie Oliver, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been crucial in changing the perception of food waste action, according to Stuart. 

‘We made it cool to tackle food waste.’

“Each time we were reaching millions of people making food waste cool and fun, tasty, making it delicious. That is what captured the energy and imagination of the public and made it a really vibrant scene,” he says. 

It’s a positive approach he applies more generally to other environmental campaigning, explaining: “If you want to change the world then you’ve got to throw a better party than the people destroying it.” 

But, clearly, there is still plenty left to do. Changing tone, Stuart highlights the current ecological crisis, and how food waste is just the tip of the iceberg. 

“We are in the middle of the mass species extinction event. The foundation of which is our food system; our food system is the single biggest negative impact that humans have on planet earth,” he says. 

“The reason why I’m interested in food waste is twofold; it is a very concrete problem and you can do something about it. But the more interesting angle for me is precisely that food waste is the most obvious way of providing a radical challenge to the productionist paradigm.”

According to Stuart, this is the idea that doubling food production by 2050 is the answer to the world’s food problems. 

 ‘The last thing we need is to rampantly double food production,’ says Stuart. 

“The fact is that we waste a third of the world’s food supply. That is the way that we say, no, the last thing we need is to rampantly double food production without taking into consideration the environmental impact,” he explains. 

“We already know that overconsumption is the biggest public health crisis in the world, obesity is killing more people than smoking. We need to challenge that bulldozer. That bulldozer is making a menace of our food system, destroying the remaining forests of the earth, and producing food that is not good for human health.”

On whether the fate of planet earth is doomed, Stuart says he is “very pessimistic. But part of my experience on the issue of food waste convinces me that global transformational action, in a very short amount of time, is possible,” he says.

“We have hope, we have vibrancy, and if we put in the energy now, that total social and economic transformation is still possible. But we’re running out of time.”

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