Tristram Stuart is an award-winning speaker, author, campaigner, and expert on the social and environmental impact of food waste. He is the founder of Toast Ale, a beer company launched in the United Kingdom that brews beer using fresh, surplus bread. Following the success of Stuart’s two books, The Bloodless Revolution (2006) and Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009), he founded the environmental organization Feedback, which works internationally to improve the environmental and social impact of all things related to food. Feedback’s campaigns and events, including Feeding the 5000 (a series of events in which 5000 meals, made entirely from quality food that would otherwise have been wasted, are given away), have been launched with partner organizations including the United Nations Environmental Program and in many countries around the world. He has been awarded the international environmental Sophie Prize and is an Ashoka Fellow, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. Stuart’s 2012 Ted Talk, The global food waste scandal, has had more than 1.5 million views.
New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): Search “Tristram Stuart” on Google and the results will link to your viral Ted Talk, reviews of your international prize-winning books, NPR sound bites, and lists of awards given for your work. What’s one thing the Internet doesn’t tell us about how you became inspired and impassioned about tackling food waste?
Tristram Stuart (TS): Most of my work is focused on the environmental impacts of food waste and how wasting a third of the world’s food supply represents a colossal amount of completely needless deforestation, carbon emissions, soil erosion, fresh water use and species extinction. We need to reform the food system to reduce this impact if we want life on earth to thrive. However, at the heart of all the work I’ve done on this, has been this idea of sharing food, of companionship. “Com” means “with” and “pan” means “bread,” so, etymologically, companion means someone you share food with. It is a behavior we see in many of our close animal relatives and in particular the bonobos. When the bonobos have surplus food they proactively look for other bonobos to share it with, and more interestingly, they usually select strangers over and above friends. They effectively use food surplus as a social capital to make new friends, and by doing so they also save precious environmental resources. Think of all the friends we humans could make if we were to share the 1.3 billion tons of food we waste every year. The behavior of our ape cousins has inspired some of my work on how we can solve this problem through connecting to each other and the world around us.
FPC: In 2009 you launched Feeding the 5000 in London. To date, Feedback and its partners have hosted more than 40 Feeding the 5000 events around the world. Has the public’s reception of these events changed since the first one was held in 2009? What about the events themselves – how have they changed?
TS: Feeding the 5000 (F5k) was originally conceived as a one-off event after I published my book to reach out to a much wider audience. The event has had an unpredictable and immediate impact on supermarket policies in the UK and on government policies concerning food waste. It has also resulted in mass behavior changes and a completely uplifted awareness. For example, before the first F5k, restaurants were ranking food waste 13th out of a list of 13 issues they were concerned about. After the second one, however, food waste jumped up to be one of the most important issues they wanted to address. Having achieved this level of impact in the UK, we realized we had essentially come up with a tool for launching a national movement with multiple partners on the issue of food waste. Environmental organizations, food poverty and food recovery organizations all saw how they intersected on this issue.
We’ve consequently been invited to help launch national movements around the world. Time and again these events have resulted in a lasting deep impact on public perception and amazing collaboration among civil society organizations – such as what happened in France, in Holland and in Ireland after we launched there. Creating a lot of noise in the media as we did, generally results in immediate responses from the CEOs of big companies and the government agencies. Feedback was never interested in creating local offices in the countries where it operated. Our formula was successful because we worked very closely with local organizations to determine the local priorities for change. Every F5k we did had a different local flavor, a different set of organizations involved, a different set of demands and totally different stories. The problem of food waste in Nairobi where the export supply chain is wasting a lot of food is very different from the one in NYC, which itself is very different from the one in San Francisco.
I would like to add that in May 2017 I stepped back from the day-to-day work of Feedback in which I no longer have any formal roles or responsibilities. I do, however, remain fully engaged in specific tasks, as an advisor to the Executive Director, and as a champion of the organization wherever I go.
FPC: In addition to Feedback, you also founded Toast Ale, a company that brews beer using surplus bread. What is another food or drink that would benefit from the type of creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurship that Toast Ale has injected into the beer brewing process?
TS: Beer was originally brewed to preserve grain that would otherwise be wasted. The same is true of cider, and, indeed, I have been brewing cider for much longer than I have been brewing beer. In every area where I lived, we would go around local villages, knock at the neighbors’ doors and get all the apples people wouldn’t use. When people have too many of these delicious fruits, they can become a nuisance. They make a mess in the garden, which we are helping them to clear out. We then take the apples back home and have big open weekends with the local community to press them. We brew cider completely naturally and press apple juice for the kids. It’s all so much fun! A colossal amount of fresh apples are going to waste every year and there are great opportunities for rescuing them. Several projects in the USA and the UK already exist with that purpose in mind.
FPC: Feedback has had widespread success in community-building, awareness-raising, and impactful campaigning. Can you speak to a project or campaign where the organization was less successful and how the lessons learned from it influenced future work?
TS: One that we have not yet been successful with is the Pig Idea campaign, which started in 2013 and encourages the feeding of food waste to pigs. Of course, we never anticipated that this would be a quick win. We’re talking about changing European regulations. There is a massive entrenched corporate interest against changing the law regarding feeding food waste to pigs combined with a lot of genuine fear of animal health problems. In the early days, the team behind the campaign wondered if we were doing anything wrong, but I don’t believe we were. What I personally relied on was being really forthright and, not exactly confrontational, but critical. We were very open about the issues related to the pig industry including deforestation, species extinction and exploitation of fish resources. Obviously, the pig industry reacted quite badly and didn’t want to have their industry associated with these massive environmental problems.
My colleagues at Feedback are now much more diplomatic and have gone a long way toward bringing some members of the industry over to our side. There is a really strong body of scientists, veterinarians, pig nutrition experts and indeed some members of the pig industry who see feeding food waste to pigs as an environmental op, because it’s so much cheaper. The learning we took from this is that, even when you are obviously right from environmental, economic, cultural and historical perspectives, to change massive institutions like the European Union, to overcome corporate barriers and public perception can take a very long time.
FPC: Canadian politician Preston Manning said, “There are more effective ways of tackling environmental problems – including global warming, a proliferation of plastics, urban sprawl, and the loss of biodiversity – than by treaties, top-down regulation, and other approaches offered by big governments and their dependents.” If we add food waste to that list of environmental problems, do you agree with his statement?
TS: I don’t agree that it’s either one or the other. Indeed very often big government solutions arise after there has been a mass movement of grassroots mobilization concerning a particular issue. I believe that we can’t rely solely on grassroots mobilization to create behavior change on an individual or industry level. We absolutely need global treaties to protect planet earth from the global corporations that currently extract money by destroying nature. No amount of public opinion can stop that unless there are really strong laws in place. For example, chopping down the Amazon rainforest to turn it into toilet paper and soy farms needs to be strongly regulated because this is going to undermine the long-term viability of life on earth.
FPC: In November of 2018 the Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition published Fixing food 2018: Best practices towards the Sustainable Development Goals. The report, now in its third edition, includes a Food Sustainability Index (FSI) that ranks 67 countries on food-system sustainability. The index is based on 37 indicators and 89 individual metrics that measure the sustainability of food systems across three categories: food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture, and nutritional challenges. Are there any countries implementing national-level policies on food waste that you look to for inspiration in your work? Any countries that serve as symbols of hope that governments can be effective?
TS: One of the reasons France does incredibly well in that report is thanks to their splendidly publicized law that tells supermarkets they have to be in a relationship with a charity partner to whom they donate their surplus food. By contrast, a far less obvious piece of legislation that isn’t captured in that study was passed in the UK in 2013 and has been genuinely transformative. It’s called the Groceries Code Adjudicator Act and is not ostensibly a food waste legislation. It relates to competition law; however, it has had, and was designed to have, a transformative effect on food waste. It effectively bans supermarkets from cancelling orders or amending forecasts at a very late stage, which could lead to farmers’ losing large amounts of money by wasting their food. Thanks to this act, if a supermarket breaks the law it could be fined up to 1 percent of its turnover, which is a colossal amount, especially when added to the reputational damage that can be caused by not respecting the law. Supermarkets are now much more wary of causing their suppliers to waste food.
This kind of legislation is increasingly important in Europe to prevent supermarkets from exploiting their position of power in the supply chain. We are currently being told that the issue of food waste in the developing world needs to be resolved by big corporations’ addressing logistical problems in the supply chain. We should not, however, forget that these same companies are the godfathers and godmothers of the kind of waste we see on farms.
In Japan, another piece of legislation is highly inspiring. Instead of banning the feeding of food waste to pigs, as is the case in Europe, Japan actually encourages it and provides fiscal incentives to farmers who reuse food waste.
FPC: To solve the broken food system – whether locally, nationally or globally – an integrated approach to the food chain is needed. For example, best practices are likely to include all players in the supply chain, from farmers to consumers, including those in the private sector, academia, youth, international organizations and schools. Is the problem being tackled in a coordinated way or is it characterized by a siloed-approach? Can you explain what role Feedback or Toast Ale is playing in fostering greater collaboration?
TS: I think it would be complacent to imagine that we can solve this problem at its heart without industry collaboration. When we started tackling the issue of food waste with Feedback, there were several objectives. One of them was to create the kind of incremental changes in the food system as we have it in order to reduce food waste. There, of course, collaboration across the industry and outside the industry is highly important. For example, the Groceries Code Adjudicator’s Act legally forced a better collaboration between retailers and suppliers. Feedback also used the power of mass media and public mobilization to morally invite and incentivize companies to protect their reputation by reducing food waste in exactly those ways.
While campaigning against food waste we exposed the core hypocrisy of what I call the protectionist paradigm in the food industry, which is the idea that we need to double food production by 2050 (or increase it by 50 or 70 percent, depending who you’re talking to). That paradigm is what we are trying to oppose by pointing out that it doesn’t make sense in a world where we already waste a third of the world’s food and people in the west already eat more than is actually good for their health. That can’t be sustained by the planet. I believe that it’s not just about collaboration; it is about a fundamental change of direction by the food industry. What we need is a radical transformation of the way food is grown, how it gets to people and how people consume it.
FPC: Continuing with the theme of bringing all the necessary stakeholders to the table, imagine you are hosting a dinner party to discuss food waste. Who are the top guests on your invitation list?
TS: A bonobo, a pig, a six-year-old, a Uighyur from the Xinjiang province, and my grandmother, who was born in NYC and lived through World War II in the UK. Among them they’ll demonstrate that nature doesn’t know what waste is. The bonobo would show us how to make friends with surplus food. The pig would use all the leftovers. The six-year-old doesn’t even know that a banana has to be a particular shape or size. The Uighyur would show us how to operate a society-wide taboo on wasting food. And my grandmother, who, like everyone else who grew up during war and austerity, knows that in an emergency – and we are in an emergency right now – waste is totally unacceptable. What we need is to upcycle this issue of food waste the same way nature upcycles death into life. We need to understand how we humans can and must align with nature in the way we produce food.
FPC: Now, what’s on your menu?
TS: Toast Ale, of course! With Toast Ale we’ve come up with a solution, and we are doing what we can to get the message out. Imagine if someone in the car industry came up with a vehicle that consumed a third less fuel than all the others, drove just as well, and was just as comfortable. It would be almost immoral to drive anything else, wouldn’t it? This is exactly how we feel with Toast Ale. We’ve come up with a way of transforming the beer industry into one of the actors helping to save the planet. Toast Ale reduces the environmental impact of producing beer; it generates money from bread that would otherwise be wasted, and it gives its distributable profits to charities working to fix the food system. On our menu, I would get that message out far and wide so that this process would be implemented on a much broader scale than it is at the moment. Beer is drunk and bread is being wasted all over the world – let’s connect the dots. We are currently brewing in seven countries around the world and there is room for a much broader expansion.
FPC: Goal 12 of the Sustainable Development Goals calls on the global community to “By 2030 halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.” Are we on track to hit this target? Do we even have the data to know if we are on target or not?
TS: Regrettably we don’t have the data. However, having spent many years campaigning for transparency in the reporting of food waste data – even before the SDG – I’m now delighted that we have seen some positive progress. I believe that the reporting of food waste is absolutely essential if we want to solve the problem, because that is how we can find out how to tackle it, how to encourage policy changes, and how to tell CEOs what they need to do. In the early days, this idea was absolutely rejected by anyone in the industry. However their perspective has shifted, and I am very pleased that a supermarket like Tesco is now reporting transparently how much food they waste both in their own business and in their supply chain. Tesco’s CEO is also strongly calling on other members of the industry to do the same.
With regard to the SDG target, several individual companies are already achieving the halving of food waste and are well ahead of the goal’s target. Costa Cruises is on board to solve the problem and has set the ambitious goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2020, ten years ahead of the 2030 global target! They are showing that it’s possible for these kinds of organizations to reach this target. Halving food waste is, however, just the beginning of the story. There’s a lot more to do to get the food system sustainable and we’ve got to get on with the work.
FPC: In France, legislation mandates that all unsold but edible food be donated to charities for immediate redistribution to those in need, while food that is unsafe to eat must be donated to farms for agricultural purposes. Do you see a place for legislation like this in the U.S.? In New York City? What are the roadblocks?
TS: That law was about one of the most inaccurately reported pieces of legislation on food waste I have ever witnessed. As opposed to what has been said in the media, supermarkets are not obliged to give away all their food surplus. This indeed was doomed by French lawyers to be unconstitutional. What the law does, in reality, is oblige supermarkets to be in a relationship with an organization that can receive surplus food. It would, therefore, be quite easy for a company to sidestep that law. Nonetheless, laws are the codified morals of society and the reputational risk of being exposed for disingenuously not abiding by this law is huge. French society now regards food waste on that scale and in that way as totally unacceptable and that in itself makes the law extremely powerful. It sends a very strong message to businesses operating in the food industry.
I absolutely see a place for such a piece of legislation in America. In fact, the state of New York has just passed an almost equally radical piece of legislation that will oblige companies that are not donating surplus food to charity, to explain why they are not doing so, to report how much they are wasting, and to treat their food waste with much more care and better management than they currently do. That is transformative for the industry. It doesn’t cover NYC since it falls under a different legislation however, it proves that these kinds of things are already happening. Congratulations to the people of the US for making their outrage on this issue known and to the legislators who listened and codified that outrage into a law. That is absolutely the direction in which we should be moving.
FPC: Food labelling is another important tool helping consumers to make smarter purchasing decisions that lead to less food waste. When the European Commission looked into this, the results, published in February 2018, suggested that up to 10 percent of food waste in Europe is linked to date-marking—such as “sell by”, “best by” and “use by” labels—on food products. What work are you doing to standardize and improve date labelling?
TS: When Feedback started campaigning in the USA, we identified one of the most absurd things I’d ever come across in all my campaigning on food waste, which is that companies were not even using a common terminology for their date labels. It was actually impossible even for an expert to know what any company meant by “use by”, “expire by,” “best by,” etc. This resulted in people throwing away food even when it was perfectly good for human consumption. There has been a lot of talk about passing national legislation to create uniformity in date label definitions. We strongly believe this to be necessary. We asked the great partners who were working on this, ReFed, NRDC, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic what was stopping the industry from sitting around a table together and agreeing on a common terminology. And, as a result of the work of these organizations, that is indeed what happened several months later. The issue is far from solved today, but it’s one step in the right direction.
In the UK, Feedback’s work has recently led to several supermarkets’ reviewing their date labeling policies on fresh produce. Tesco, for example, has removed date labels from 116 lines of produce. Furthermore, Feedback’s campaign, Milking It,’ explored the role of overly conservative “use by” labels on milk, causing citizens to waste large amounts unnecessarily. According to the research, 19 percent of milk waste in the home is avoidable and in the UK 85 million pints of milk are thrown away every year because of ‘”use by” or other labelling guidance. Feedback is calling for supermarkets and milk manufacturers to review overly conservative labels to give consumers better information, such as providing as instructions on fridge temperature and adding a few days to their use by dates.
FPC: Which argument have you found to be the most convincing when advocating for less food waste? The business case (i.e, a Boston Consulting Group study found that the benefits ranged from cost savings to discovering new revenue streams); the environment case (because agriculture is the leading cause of the degradation of our environment, and wasting food is wasting resources); or the moral case (people are dying of hunger and we are throwing out our food)? Which one resonates most with you?
TS: If we look at the economic case, it’s a no brainer. There are lots of companies offering consultancy and tools to help businesses save money by reducing their waste. As a campaigner, therefore, my role is to make sure that where immediate financial benefits aren’t obvious, field action has to be taken. For example, I mentioned earlier the fact that example of prior to the Groceries Code Adjudicator Act, the actors causing the food waste (that is the supermarkets) were not paying the price for their actions; it was the farmers who were suffering
In my campaigns, what I focus on is how to inspire and draw people in by throwing a better party than the people who are destroying nature. That’s what we do with Toast Ale, with Feeding the 5000, Disco Soup and the Pig Idea. We project a vision of how we want and believe other people want to see the food system work. That is how one can drive a lot of change.
Grew up in: Ashdown Forest
City or town you call home: Ashdown Forest (even though it is neither a city nor a town)
Job title: Founder Feedback Global and Toast Ale
Background and education: MA Cantab
One word you would use to describe our food system: Ecocidal
Your food policy hero: Simon Fairlie
Your breakfast this morning: Bananas saved from the supermarket trash, frozen & whizzed up with a sprig of mint
Favorite food: Wild mushrooms
Favorite last meal: Roadkill venison bolognaise