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TEDSalon London Spring 2012

Tristram Stuart: The global food waste scandal

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Western countries throw out nearly half of their food, not because it’s inedible -- but because it doesn’t look appealing. Tristram Stuart delves into the shocking data of wasted food, calling for a more responsible use of global resources.

- Author and Activist
Tristram Stuart sounds the warning bell on global food waste, calling for us to change the systems whereby large quantities of produce and other foods end up in trash heaps. Full bio

The job of uncovering the global food waste scandal
00:16
started for me when I was 15 years old.
00:19
I bought some pigs. I was living in Sussex.
00:22
And I started to feed them in the most traditional
00:25
and environmentally friendly way.
00:27
I went to my school kitchen, and I said,
00:29
"Give me the scraps that my school friends have turned
00:31
their noses up at."
00:33
I went to the local baker and took their stale bread.
00:34
I went to the local greengrocer, and I went to a farmer
00:36
who was throwing away potatoes because they were
00:39
the wrong shape or size for supermarkets.
00:41
This was great. My pigs turned that food waste
00:44
into delicious pork. I sold that pork
00:47
to my school friends' parents, and I made
00:50
a good pocket money addition to my teenage allowance.
00:52
But I noticed that most of the food that I was giving my pigs
00:57
was in fact fit for human consumption,
00:59
and that I was only scratching the surface,
01:02
and that right the way up the food supply chain,
01:04
in supermarkets, greengrocers, bakers, in our homes,
01:07
in factories and farms, we were hemorrhaging out food.
01:10
Supermarkets didn't even want to talk to me
01:13
about how much food they were wasting.
01:16
I'd been round the back. I'd seen bins full of food
01:17
being locked and then trucked off to landfill sites,
01:20
and I thought, surely there is something more sensible
01:23
to do with food than waste it.
01:26
One morning, when I was feeding my pigs,
01:29
I noticed a particularly tasty-looking sun-dried tomato loaf
01:31
that used to crop up from time to time.
01:35
I grabbed hold of it,
01:37
sat down, and ate my breakfast with my pigs. (Laughter)
01:38
That was the first act of what I later learned to call freeganism,
01:42
really an exhibition of the injustice of food waste,
01:45
and the provision of the solution to food waste,
01:49
which is simply to sit down and eat food,
01:52
rather than throwing it away.
01:54
That became, as it were, a way of confronting
01:56
large businesses in the business of wasting food,
01:59
and exposing, most importantly, to the public,
02:02
that when we're talking about food being thrown away,
02:04
we're not talking about rotten stuff, we're not talking about
02:07
stuff that's beyond the pale.
02:09
We're talking about good, fresh food that is being wasted
02:11
on a colossal scale.
02:14
Eventually, I set about writing my book,
02:16
really to demonstrate the extent of this problem
02:18
on a global scale. What this shows is
02:20
a nation-by-nation breakdown of the likely level
02:23
of food waste in each country in the world.
02:27
Unfortunately, empirical data, good, hard stats, don't exist,
02:30
and therefore to prove my point, I first of all had to find
02:34
some proxy way of uncovering
02:36
how much food was being wasted.
02:39
So I took the food supply of every single country
02:41
and I compared it to what was actually likely
02:43
to be being consumed in each country.
02:46
That's based on diet intake surveys, it's based on
02:48
levels of obesity, it's based on a range of factors
02:52
that gives you an approximate guess
02:55
as to how much food is actually going into people's mouths.
02:56
That black line in the middle of that table
03:00
is the likely level of consumption
03:02
with an allowance for certain levels of inevitable waste.
03:05
There will always be waste. I'm not that unrealistic
03:10
that I think we can live in a waste-free world.
03:12
But that black line shows what a food supply should be
03:14
in a country if they allow for a good, stable, secure,
03:17
nutritional diet for every person in that country.
03:22
Any dot above that line, and you'll quickly notice that
03:26
that includes most countries in the world,
03:28
represents unnecessary surplus, and is likely to reflect
03:31
levels of waste in each country.
03:35
As a country gets richer, it invests more and more
03:38
in getting more and more surplus
03:41
into its shops and restaurants,
03:42
and as you can see, most European
03:45
and North American countries
03:47
fall between 150 and 200 percent
03:48
of the nutritional requirements of their populations.
03:52
So a country like America has twice as much food
03:55
on its shop shelves and in its restaurants
03:57
than is actually required to feed the American people.
04:00
But the thing that really struck me,
04:04
when I plotted all this data, and it was a lot of numbers,
04:05
was that you can see how it levels off.
04:09
Countries rapidly shoot towards that 150 mark,
04:13
and then they level off, and they don't really go on rising
04:16
as you might expect.
04:19
So I decided to unpack that data a little bit further
04:21
to see if that was true or false.
04:23
And that's what I came up with.
04:26
If you include not just the food that ends up
04:27
in shops and restaurants, but also the food
04:29
that people feed to livestock,
04:31
the maize, the soy, the wheat, that humans could eat
04:33
but choose to fatten livestock instead to produce
04:37
increasing amounts of meat and dairy products,
04:39
what you find is that most rich countries
04:41
have between three and four times the amount of food
04:43
that their population needs to feed itself.
04:47
A country like America has four times the amount of food
04:50
that it needs.
04:54
When people talk about the need to increase global
04:57
food production to feed those nine billion people
05:00
that are expected on the planet by 2050,
05:02
I always think of these graphs.
05:05
The fact is, we have an enormous buffer
05:07
in rich countries between ourselves and hunger.
05:09
We've never had such gargantuan surpluses before.
05:13
In many ways, this is a great success story
05:18
of human civilization, of the agricultural surpluses
05:21
that we set out to achieve 12,000 years ago.
05:25
It is a success story. It has been a success story.
05:28
But what we have to recognize now is that we are
05:32
reaching the ecological limits that our planet can bear,
05:34
and when we chop down forests, as we are every day,
05:38
to grow more and more food,
05:41
when we extract water from depleting water reserves,
05:42
when we emit fossil fuel emissions in the quest
05:46
to grow more and more food,
05:49
and then we throw away so much of it,
05:50
we have to think about what we can start saving.
05:53
And yesterday, I went to one of the local supermarkets
05:56
that I often visit to
06:00
inspect, if you like, what they're throwing away.
06:02
I found quite a few packets of biscuits amongst
06:06
all the fruit and vegetables and everything else
06:09
that was in there.
06:10
And I thought, well this could serve as a symbol for today.
06:11
So I want you to imagine that these nine biscuits
06:14
that I found in the bin represent the global food supply,
06:16
okay? We start out with nine.
06:20
That's what's in fields around the world every single year.
06:21
The first biscuit we're going to lose
06:25
before we even leave the farm.
06:26
That's a problem primarily associated with
06:28
developing work agriculture, whether it's
06:32
a lack of infrastructure, refrigeration, pasteurization,
06:33
grain stores, even basic fruit crates, which means
06:36
that food goes to waste before it even leaves the fields.
06:39
The next three biscuits are the foods that we decide
06:42
to feed to livestock, the maize, the wheat and the soya.
06:46
Unfortunately, our beasts are inefficient animals,
06:50
and they turn two-thirds of that into feces and heat,
06:54
so we've lost those two, and we've only kept this one
06:59
in meat and dairy products.
07:01
Two more we're going to throw away directly into bins.
07:03
This is what most of us think of when we think
07:07
of food waste, what ends up in the garbage,
07:09
what ends up in supermarket bins,
07:11
what ends up in restaurant bins. We've lost another two,
07:13
and we've left ourselves with just four biscuits to feed on.
07:16
That is not a superlatively efficient use of global resources,
07:19
especially when you think of the billion hungry people
07:23
that exist already in the world.
07:26
Having gone through the data, I then needed
07:28
to demonstrate where that food ends up.
07:30
Where does it end up? We're used to seeing the stuff
07:33
on our plates, but what about all the stuff
07:35
that goes missing in between?
07:37
Supermarkets are an easy place to start.
07:39
This is the result of my hobby,
07:41
which is unofficial bin inspections. (Laughter)
07:44
Strange you might think, but if we could rely on corporations
07:48
to tell us what they were doing in the back of their stores,
07:51
we wouldn't need to go sneaking around the back,
07:54
opening up bins and having a look at what's inside.
07:57
But this is what you can see more or less on
07:59
every street corner in Britain, in Europe, in North America.
08:01
It represents a colossal waste of food,
08:05
but what I discovered whilst I was writing my book
08:08
was that this very evident abundance of waste
08:10
was actually the tip of the iceberg.
08:14
When you start going up the supply chain,
08:16
you find where the real food waste is happening
08:19
on a gargantuan scale.
08:22
Can I have a show of hands
08:24
if you have a loaf of sliced bread in your house?
08:25
Who lives in a household where that crust --
08:29
that slice at the first and last end of each loaf --
08:31
who lives in a household where it does get eaten?
08:35
Okay, most people, not everyone, but most people,
08:37
and this is, I'm glad to say, what I see across the world,
08:39
and yet has anyone seen a supermarket or sandwich shop
08:42
anywhere in the world that serves sandwiches
08:45
with crusts on it? (Laughter)
08:47
I certainly haven't.
08:49
So I kept on thinking, where do those crusts go? (Laughter)
08:50
This is the answer, unfortunately:
08:55
13,000 slices of fresh bread coming out of
08:58
this one single factory every single day, day-fresh bread.
09:00
In the same year that I visited this factory,
09:05
I went to Pakistan, where people in 2008 were going hungry
09:07
as a result of a squeeze on global food supplies.
09:11
We contribute to that squeeze
09:15
by depositing food in bins here in Britain
09:17
and elsewhere in the world. We take food
09:20
off the market shelves that hungry people depend on.
09:22
Go one step up, and you get to farmers,
09:25
who throw away sometimes a third or even more
09:28
of their harvest because of cosmetic standards.
09:30
This farmer, for example, has invested 16,000 pounds
09:32
in growing spinach, not one leaf of which he harvested,
09:35
because there was a little bit of grass growing in amongst it.
09:38
Potatoes that are cosmetically imperfect,
09:41
all going for pigs.
09:43
Parsnips that are too small for supermarket specifications,
09:45
tomatoes in Tenerife,
09:49
oranges in Florida,
09:51
bananas in Ecuador, where I visited last year,
09:53
all being discarded. This is one day's waste
09:56
from one banana plantation in Ecuador.
09:58
All being discarded, perfectly edible,
10:01
because they're the wrong shape or size.
10:03
If we do that to fruit and vegetables,
10:05
you bet we can do it to animals too.
10:07
Liver, lungs, heads, tails,
10:10
kidneys, testicles,
10:13
all of these things which are traditional,
10:15
delicious and nutritious parts of our gastronomy
10:16
go to waste. Offal consumption has halved
10:19
in Britain and America in the last 30 years.
10:23
As a result, this stuff gets fed to dogs at best,
10:25
or is incinerated.
10:28
This man, in Kashgar, Xinjiang province, in Western China,
10:30
is serving up his national dish.
10:33
It's called sheep's organs.
10:35
It's delicious, it's nutritious,
10:37
and as I learned when I went to Kashgar,
10:39
it symbolizes their taboo against food waste.
10:41
I was sitting in a roadside cafe.
10:44
A chef came to talk to me, I finished my bowl,
10:46
and halfway through the conversation, he stopped talking
10:49
and he started frowning into my bowl.
10:51
I thought, "My goodness, what taboo have I broken?
10:53
How have I insulted my host?"
10:55
He pointed at three grains of rice
10:57
at the bottom of my bowl, and he said, "Clean." (Laughter)
10:58
I thought, "My God, you know, I go around the world
11:03
telling people to stop wasting food.
11:05
This guy has thrashed me at my own game." (Laughter)
11:06
But it gave me faith. It gave me faith that we, the people,
11:11
do have the power to stop this tragic waste of resources
11:14
if we regard it as socially unacceptable
11:19
to waste food on a colossal scale,
11:22
if we make noise about it, tell corporations about it,
11:23
tell governments we want to see an end to food waste,
11:26
we do have the power to bring about that change.
11:28
Fish, 40 to 60 percent of European fish
11:31
are discarded at sea, they don't even get landed.
11:33
In our homes, we've lost touch with food.
11:37
This is an experiment I did on three lettuces.
11:39
Who keeps lettuces in their fridge?
11:42
Most people. The one on the left
11:45
was kept in a fridge for 10 days.
11:48
The one in the middle, on my kitchen table. Not much difference.
11:50
The one on the right I treated like cut flowers.
11:52
It's a living organism, cut the slice off,
11:55
stuck it in a vase of water,
11:57
it was all right for another two weeks after this.
11:58
Some food waste, as I said at the beginning,
12:02
will inevitably arise, so the question is,
12:04
what is the best thing to do with it?
12:06
I answered that question when I was 15.
12:08
In fact, humans answered that question 6,000 years ago:
12:09
We domesticated pigs
12:15
to turn food waste back into food.
12:17
And yet, in Europe, that practice has become illegal
12:20
since 2001 as a result of the foot-and-mouth outbreak.
12:23
It's unscientific. It's unnecessary.
12:27
If you cook food for pigs, just as if
12:29
you cook food for humans, it is rendered safe.
12:31
It's also a massive saving of resources.
12:34
At the moment, Europe depends on importing
12:37
millions of tons of soy from South America,
12:40
where its production contributes to global warming,
12:41
to deforestation, to biodiversity loss,
12:44
to feed livestock here in Europe.
12:47
At the same time we throw away millions of tons
12:49
of food waste which we could and should be feeding them.
12:52
If we did that, and fed it to pigs, we would save
12:55
that amount of carbon.
12:58
If we feed our food waste which is the current
13:00
government favorite way of getting rid of food waste,
13:03
to anaerobic digestion, which turns food waste
13:05
into gas to produce electricity,
13:08
you save a paltry 448 kilograms of carbon dioxide
13:11
per ton of food waste. It's much better to feed it to pigs.
13:14
We knew that during the war. (Laughter)
13:17
A silver lining: It has kicked off globally,
13:20
the quest to tackle food waste.
13:24
Feeding the 5,000 is an event I first organized in 2009.
13:26
We fed 5,000 people all on food that otherwise
13:30
would have been wasted.
13:32
Since then, it's happened again in London,
13:34
it's happening internationally, and across the country.
13:36
It's a way of organizations coming together
13:38
to celebrate food, to say the best thing to do with food
13:40
is to eat and enjoy it, and to stop wasting it.
13:44
For the sake of the planet we live on,
13:47
for the sake of our children,
13:49
for the sake of all the other
13:53
organisms that share our planet with us,
13:54
we are a terrestrial animal, and we depend on our land
13:57
for food. At the moment, we are trashing our land
14:00
to grow food that no one eats.
14:02
Stop wasting food. Thank you very much. (Applause)
14:05
(Applause)
14:08
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Tristram Stuart - Author and Activist
Tristram Stuart sounds the warning bell on global food waste, calling for us to change the systems whereby large quantities of produce and other foods end up in trash heaps.

Why you should listen

Western countries waste up to half of their food. This is an injustice Tristram Stuart has dedicated his career to fixing. In his newest book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, Tristram shows how changing the systems that result in food waste could be one of the simplest ways to reduce pressure on the environment.

The winner of the international environmental award The Sophie Prize in 2011, Tristram is the founder of Feeding the 5000, a consciousness raising campaign where 5000 members of the public are given a free lunch using only ingredients that otherwise would have been wasted. Held in Trafalgar Square in 2009 and 2011, the event has also been held internationally.

In addition, Tristram works with a range of NGOs, governments, and private enterprises to tackle the global food waste scandal.

More profile about the speaker
Tristram Stuart | Speaker | TED.com