When it comes to our food system, we’re missing a trick. There’s masses of untapped value at every stage of the food supply chain, from the farms where our food is grown, through food packaging, transportation, retail and preparation, to the uneaten food that goes in the bin. The 2015 report Growth Within estimated that in total, 31% of food produced is lost or wasted. It’s the sort of complex problem – and enormous opportunity – that makes this area ripe for reinvention inspired by the circular economy. Tristram Stuart, Founder of food waste organisation Feedback, is someone who looks at the failings of the current take, make, dispose system and sees endless possibilities. Anna Glasser caught up with Tristram to find out why we should look forward to living in a ‘food loop’.
Hi Tristram. Feedback is a multifacted organisation – could you briefly explain what the organisation does and the different campaigns it runs?
Feedback aims to cook up creative and impactful campaigns to end food waste at every level of the food system. The campaigns are under four banners: Feeding the 5000, which is our flagship campaigning event, are celebratory feasts around the world that draw attention to the amount of edible food thrown away; The Pig Idea is a campaign that aims to encourage the use of food waste to feed pigs; research and investigations, which looks at the supply chains of some of Europe’s largest retailers in order to understand the depth and sources of food waste, and lastly, The Gleaning Network coordinates volunteers, farmers and food redistribution charities to salvage the thousands of tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables that are wasted on farms every year across the UK and Europe, and direct this fresh, nutritious food to people in need.
There is the common refrain that we need to grow more food to feed a growing population. However, there is already a global overproduction of food. How can we convince those in positions of power – international bodies, governments and so on – that we don’t actually need a bigger food system to feed a growing population, but actually a better one?
I think this is the reason why Feedback’s campaigning work is so important – ultimately, we need a knowledgeable public that will put pressure on people in positions of power to understand the importance and urgency of a circular food supply chain, and take action to ensure food waste is minimised and distributed effectively.
Is there also role for local actors, for example cities, to lead by example?
Definitely, food waste happens all along the supply chain. Local players like charities or even individual families have roles to play to reduce food waste. For example, redistribution of surplus food through charities like Fareshare and Foodcycle, which have branches in cities all over UK and beyond, have not only been effective in bringing awareness to the food waste issue, but also connect people in need to surplus food that will otherwise be binned.
A circular food system model seems like a no brainer; less inputs in, less waste products out. So what are some of the biggest barriers we face in achieving a shift to such a model?
Despite the rise of many initiatives that are pushing for a more circular food system, it is critical that we can engage big players in food supply chain, such as supermarkets, to quickly and radically adapt and change. Our food system is the single biggest problem standing in the way of tackling climate change, biodiversity loss, and other major environmental problems, and it is a race against time that we realise a circular food system.
What are some of the biggest achievements that have helped keep you going on the path toward creating a more circular food system?
My fight to reduce food waste has been an exciting journey, I have written a book on the matter, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, and won awards, like the international environmental award The Sophie Prize in 2011. I have to say one of my proudest achievements is establishing Toast Ale, which brews beer from unsold loaves from bakeries and unused crusts from sandwich makers. Toast Ale does not only prove a product of a circular food system works, but our profits also go to Feedback, investing capital to building a better food future.
Was there a moment when you realised one key to stopping food waste was shifting from a linear model to a circular one? What prompted it?
During my investigative work to understand our food system and reasons behind our immense food waste problems, I was able to travel to meet farmers and producers who are hard hit by the food waste problem. This really inspired me to act.
For example, during a visit to Kenya in 2013, I found that on top of the 50% French green beans rejected due to cosmetic standards of European supermarkets, the ends of the beans are trimmed just to fit into 9cm punnets provided by the supermarkets for easier transport. Food waste does not just impact the environment but is also a great financial burden on the farmers whose livelihood are on the line; linear food system allows large retailers to profit on the expense of the people and the Earth. It is simply not sustainable. This prompted the collective work between experts and Feedback to build the circular model and hopefully, it will be realised one day.
While it may be simple enough to change some consumers behaviour, how is it possible to create changes in the supply chain/agricultural field that can actually make a big impact? For example, we know the system is rigged to favour large-scale producers. Where should there be pressure created to change this?
In the end, large commercial retailers like supermarkets, which have immense power over the entire food supply chain, are for-profit organisations, and pressure needs to come from the consumers – every time you spend your money you are casting a vote. In recent years, you can see a lot of improved practices through pressure from the public. We also need to campaign to the public sector for better laws and policies to discourage wasteful practices. In order to implement radical change in how we produce and manage waste, we need all sectors to work hand in hand. Feedback campaigns and works with people from private and public sectors to end food waste at a systemic level, from produce left to rot in farms due to supermarkets’ cosmetic standards, to catering waste sent to landfill because of the EU ban on feeding swill to pigs. Feedback seeks to revolutionise how food is produced and consumed by changing society’s attitude on food waste, influencing policies and regulations, and campaigning for better practices in large retailers.
There seems to be a lot of action on the ground now to shift our food system – from apps to initiatives – do you think this momentum can sustain itself in the future?
There have been amazing grassroot initiatives and small businesses that are shifting the food system. Foodcycle, which combines surplus food, volunteers, and empty spaces to cook up delicious meals and tackle isolation; Fareshare, which redistribute surplus food to charities.
In the past few years, there has also been a boom in tech solutions that are addressing food waste. Some examples are FoodCloud, which connects and redistributes surplus to charities; Winnow Solutions, which allows restaurants to track and prevent food wastage; and Olio, which enables people to reduce household food waste by sharing with neighbours and friends.
While all of them are absolutely fantastic initiatives and tools, in order for them to work we need citizens who are mindful about food waste in order to actually use these technologies to the full potential.
Feedback has been working hard to create a culture change to make individuals and companies feel that they have to find ways to tackle food waste along the supply chain. This empowers people to not only seek these wonderful initiatives and tech tools to reduce food waste but to actively participate in innovating new solutions.
Any last thoughts?
Food waste can be seen as a massive and daunting problem but within it lay great opportunities. Everyone can get up today and make a difference – volunteer your local gleaning effort, investigate recipes that use up that odd onion in the fridge, or donate to food waste fighting charities like Feedback. The solutions are simple and positive, from farm to the fork.
This article is from an external Circulate contributor and therefore the views, opinions and positions expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Circulate or the Ellen MacArthur Foundation