From Farm to Fork - Tackling the Food Waste Crisis

An interview with Tristram Stuart, an international award-winning author, speaker, campaigner and expert on the environmental and social impacts of food waste.

by Olwen Smith, December 18, 2017
Tristram Stuart

At least one third of the world's food is wasted. That's 1.3 billion tonnes per year, leaving millions starving and generating 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. Tristram Stuart has dedicated his career to tackling this wastage. His books have been described as "a genuinely revelatory contribution to the history of human ideas” and his TED talk (see below) has been watched over a million times. The environmental campaigning organisation he founded, Feedback, is working to change society's attitude towards wasting food and he is also the founder of Toast Ale, a beer launched in the UK in 2016 that is made using fresh, surplus bread. We caught up with him to discuss his work and the steps we can all take in our daily lives to prevent harmful food waste.

What was it that first inspired you to tackle the challenge of food waste?

I first noticed the issue of food waste when as a teenager collecting surplus food to feed my pigs. The food was fit for human consumption and made me wonder why so much high quality food was being thrown away. I started the exploration to see just how much food is wasted in the food supply chain, and how much of it could easily be avoided by business, farms and households changing their behaviour. What I discovered was shocking and I have been working on the issue of food waste ever since, writing my book: Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal and creating the series of Feeding the 5000 events, celebratory events that feed thousands of people delicious meals made from food that was going to waste. I founded the environmental charity Feedback to continue this valuable work and to raise awareness of this issue.

Can you tell us little bit more about the work that Feedback does?

Feedback aims to cook up creative and impactful campaigns to end food waste at every level of the food system. The campaigns are under several banners: Feeding the 5000 is our flagship campaigning event; The Pig Idea is a campaign that aims to encourage the use of food waste to feed pigs; research and investigations, which aims to understand and uncover practices in the supply chains of some of Europe’s largest retailers in order to understand the depth and sources of food waste.

What challenges need to be overcome to make Feedback’s vision of a circular, stable, low-input food system a reality?

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. 

Do you think responsibility for cutting down food waste lies more so with consumers or policy-makers?

It lies with both as 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. 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.      

Numerous apps such as FoodCloud and Too Good to Go which aim to combat food waste, have emerged in recent years . What role do you think technology can play in this area?

In the past few years, there has also been a boom in tech solutions that are addressing food waste. Some connect and redistribute surplus to charities; others include 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.

What key steps can we, as consumers, take in order to be less wasteful with food on a day-to-day basis?

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.

Can you tell us about the journey which led to the creation of Toast Ale, a beer made from surplus bread?

The initial inspiration for Toast Ale came from the Brussels Beer Project, who produce a beer brewed using surplus bread as one of their range of beers. The beer was called Babylone since preserving the calories in perishable bread through fermenting it into beer is a practice that goes back to Babylonian times. It was a lightbulb moment. We could create a delicious beer with bread that would otherwise be wasted, and use the profits to fund Feedback. Using my international network of food waste activists, we could scale the idea to be hugely impactful at a global level. Brussels Beer Project shared the recipe with us and we adapted it with our brewery partners to create Toast.

Interested in reading more content like this? Sign up for our weekly UK newsletter here.