Up to 70% of grocery food is sent to trash uneaten says Tristram Stuart in his new, brilliantly researched book –
Fifty percent of food disappears between the plough and the plate; up to 35% of school lunches end up in the bin; 25% of food products purchased are eventually binned.
On the next page are the edited highlights from the book
When I was in my mid-teens, the staff at my school kitchens would hand over 25 gallons of food to me each day. They set aside peelings and uneaten dishes – all the non-meat scraps – which I would pick up every afternoon and feed to my pigs. I had bought a Gloucester Old Spot sow, Gudrun, to breed from, and I wanted to raise the piglets in the most environmentally friendly and traditional way – by feeding them on waste food. The kitchen staff were paid back with a few cuts of pork at the end of the season. In the meantime, my pigs lived on mixed salads, roast potatoes, macaroni cheese, sponge cake, rice pudding and a variety of other canteen-cuisine delights.
In addition to the school swill, I began collecting a weekly vanload of cauliflower leaves from the town market and several sacks of organic bread from the baker, which helped feed my flock of laying hens. Outsized potatoes came in from a deer farmer who picked them up by the tonne for next to nothing and swapped sackloads for my hens’ eggs.
I crossed my sow, Gudrun, with a high-quality Landrace boar, and the piglets came in litters as large as 17. One year, a swaying field of tomatoes grew where the pigs dunged in the run, and I remembered having seen crate loads of tomato salad in the swill buckets months earlier. I harvested them all and made gallons of green-tomato chutney.
As a schoolboy chasing pocket money and delicious home-grown pork, these free sources of food were a boon. Commercial pig feed is expensive, and is almost always produced in an environmentally unsustainable way. It was only when I reflected that much of the “waste” I was picking up was still fit for human consumption that I began to see it as a problem. Before I started collecting it, most of that food was dumped into landfill sites along with other forms of waste, and I knew my efforts were insignificant beside the mounds of food being thrown away by numerous local food outlets. Many shopkeepers had turned me away, either because they were anxious that I was not a licensed waste collector or because they didn’t have the time or inclination to separate their food waste. I had seen sackloads of food being locked into bins behind supermarkets whose managers were not willing even to discuss how much they threw away or what they did with it. I tried to imagine the quantities of food being lost all over the country by every different kind of shop and kitchen.
The waste did not bear thinking about. Surely some of that food could have been eaten or fed to livestock? As it was, the discarded organic bread I fed my pigs was better quality than the loaves my dad and I were eating at home. There was one particularly fragrant sun-dried tomato bread that I used to see in my pigs’ trough every now and then. One morning before school, I decided to try it. As my pigs munched their breakfast, I tore open the rich loaf and ate mouthfuls of tomato-flavoured dough. I had always been keen on foraging for wild mushrooms, nuts and berries, and this seemed like hunter-gathering in a new context. The bread was salty and soft, still fresh enough to eat and enjoy.
It was only years later that I read the words of John Locke, expounding the idea that if people let food perish in their possession they lose the right to own it: “If the fruits rotted, or the venison putrefied, before he could spend it, he offended against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished …”
I decided to find out more about what was being wasted up and down the food chain, from farms to manufacturers, retailers and consumers. I wanted to discover what level of waste was inevitable, what was avoidable, how much food we were really wasting, what happened to the food we did throw out and what impact this had on us and our environment. Above all, I wanted to know what could be done to change it.
By the time I left school, I had learnt that I could live off the food being thrown away by supermarkets and other retailers. But it wasn’t until university that I understood the true scale of the waste. A homeless man called Spider – for the web of tattoos on his face – introduced me to the subterranean loading bay beneath Sainsbury’s. When I said I didn’t want to take food that homeless people were relying on, Spider laughed. “You don’t understand, mate,” he said. “If all the homeless in the country got their food out of this bin, there’d still be enough left for you.”
It was true: the quantity of good food that Sainsbury’s placed in its six wheelie bins defied explanation. And neither that particular Sainsbury’s, nor Sainsbury’s in general, was exceptional. In one day, I discovered, a grocery store can easily throw out enough to feed more than 100 people. Back then, most supermarket managers were not interested in the issue of what to do with unsold food. Their activities were constrained by company policies which determined that surplus should be sent to landfill. They were in the business of selling food – and many bosses believed that giving it away would undermine sales. It made more sense for the supermarkets to lock the food in bins and send it off to be buried, regardless of the social and environmental costs. And while the population has become more aware of food waste, this remains the default position for the industry today.
Recently I visited the bins of a branch of Waitrose and found the following, by no means exceptional, shopping list of items: 28 chilled high-quality ready-meals (including lasagne, prawn linguine, beef pie, chicken korma with rice, chicken tikka with rice, chicken with Madeira wine and porcini mushrooms); 16 Cornish pasties; 83 yogurts, chocolate mousses and other desserts; 18 loaves of bread; 23 rolls; one chocolate cake; five pasta salads; six large melons; 223 individual items of other assorted fruit and vegetables, including nectarines, oranges, papaya, fair-trade organic bananas, organic carrots, organic leeks and avocados, seven punnets of soft fruit, one pack of mushrooms, six bags of potatoes; a bag of onions and two thriving potted herbs (chives and parsley); one almost full box of serving-size pots of margarine; a box of serving-size UHT milk cartons; several bunches of flowers and a potted orchid. Apart from the flowers, not one of these items was unfit to eat.
Soon after graduating, I started to work on a media campaign about food waste. I took newspaper, radio and television crews round the back of supermarkets and showed them what was being thrown away. The level of interest was overwhelming. Early on in that process, a BBC journalist persuaded me to make a feature for the Politics Show in 2003. She set up an interview with Lord Haskins, then one of the chief advisers to the government on food and farming and the former chairman of Northern Foods, one of Britain’s largest food-processing companies. I was just preparing my tirade when Lord Haskins launched into his own: sell-by dates were absurdly strict and, by his estimation, an incredible 70 per cent of all food produced was wasted. I nearly fell off the park bench we were sitting on. This was the highest figure I had heard, and it was coming not from a campaigner but from a senior member of the food industry. My hunch about the scale of the problem was confirmed.
In terms of back-of-store waste, smaller shops and chains often perform worse than large supermarkets. Timothy Jones, a specialist on food waste in the US, claims that the best-managed supermarket chains in north America have “leaned down” their waste to less than 1 per cent of the food coming into the stores. Convenience stores as a sub-sector compare unfavourably, with average wastage levels of 26 per cent. However, this should not distract from the fact that supermarkets hide much of their waste by pushing it further up the supply chain, forcing manufacturers and farmers to discard huge amounts of edible produce.
Relatively high small-store waste is partly due to the “drop-in” and “top-up” shopping for which most people use convenience stores. This sort of shopping is less predictable than the regular weekly shop at the big supermarkets. Non-supermarket stores also sell a higher proportion of Class II fruit and vegetables – all perfectly edible, but not meeting the most stringent cosmetic standards – and other produce past its peak, which are therefore more susceptible to spoilage. But the higher waste levels in these smaller stores are also because they simply do not have, or fail to allocate, the time and expertise required to reduce waste. Smaller shops often employ people with little formal expertise, and although they may be great entrepreneurs, they simply do not have as much knowledge about food ordering and store management as the big supermarkets.
Nor are all organic wholefood shops doing better than convenience stores. In the various places I have lived – London, Edinburgh, Sussex – organic shops have always produced surprising quantities of waste. Waste management has remained below the radar of consumer consciousness and thus also of many shopkeepers. In the bins of a local organic fruit and vegetable shop, I used to find the equivalent of 10 sacks of produce – amounting to about one-fifth of a tonne of waste – thrown out on Friday evenings. This was bemusing since the shop specialises in stock from local growers, who would presumably benefit from the waste as feed for their livestock, or at least for compost.
Occasionally, however, it is smaller enterprises – particularly stallholders at farmers’ markets – who are most keen to cut down on waste. Those who operate most effectively have direct control over stocking and a knowledge of likely sales. They can make instant price reductions in response to poor take-up of individual items and often make calculations on the likely shelf life of their produce. They also often have relatively short supply chains, thus cutting out waste at intermediary stages. Most importantly, they are not bound by the stringent cosmetic criteria that supermarkets impose on produce.
A village Co-op bin on Saturday June 27 2009: 119 bread rolls, 28 yogurts, 24 loaves of breads, 3 pizzas, 10 bags of chopped veg, 18 scones, 76 pork pies, 40 pastries, 47 bottles of salad dressing; 7 lemons; 9 burgers; 3 bunches of grapes; 28 baguettes; 200 potatoes; 3 cauliflowers; 24 tomatoes; 2 quiches; 1 sandwich; 2 small pot plants; 2 bags of salad; 1 prawn ready-meal; 18 eggs; 14 limes; 10 apple pies; 1 cottage cheese; 2 bags of oranges; 5 leeks; 2 pears; 3 broccoli; 1 bag of sugar; 1 box of blueberries; 15 bunches of flowers; 1 tin of corned beef. Many items were out of date, but some had sell-by dates as late as July 14 2009. According to its own figures, the Co-op is less wasteful than most other supermarket chains
In 2004, I lived near Spitalfields market in east London. There, each Sunday and Wednesday, the organic farmers who came to sell their fruit and vegetables would throw any over-ripe, blemished or surplus produce into a heap of boxes in the middle of the market. It became a foraging bonanza – which the stallholders tacitly encouraged, sorting out non-edibles into separate bins for compost at the local community garden.
Being farmers, these stallholders knew the value of the food they grew and the importance of recycling organic matter. Taking leftovers from them was not a protest; it was participation in a cycle of maximum utilisation, and some of the foragers showed their gratitude for the farmers’ complicity by volunteering to help carry boxes and load up vans when the market closed. The foragers would barter among themselves, sharing out fruit and vegetables, and, at the end of each Sunday, I would cycle home with a couple of boxes of organic produce.
Most of what was being thrown away at the market was good food, but, being ripe, it needed to be used up quickly. At home, I would sort through the produce and decide what needed processing immediately, and what could be eaten later in the week. Boxes of tomatoes – redder and juicier than the pale, watery specimens in supermarkets – were whisked up into tomato soup with any herbs, or pickled into tomato relish. I would use plums and cherries to make jam and chutney, or else I’d bottle them in Kilner jars. I planted chard, kale and lettuces in vases of water to keep them fresh – soaking greens in a bowl of cold water is enough to bring back crispness even if they have started to wilt.
One summer, my wife’s cousin asked us to make mango lassi for his wedding. By luck, on a Sunday at Spitalfields, I stumbled upon a stack of 25 boxes of some of the ripest, loveliest organic mangoes I had ever seen. Twenty-four hours more in store and they would have been past it, but on that day they were at the height of perfection. We peeled and stoned them all, put the pulp in bags and froze it. Just before the wedding, we churned the pulp up with milk and yogurt and added a sprig of mint to each serving. After years of scepticism about my eating habits, even my mother was persuaded. When she dropped in during the great mango-processing stint, she couldn’t resist taking home a few boxes of the fruits to make a batch of chutney.
Such salvaging efforts may seem peripheral to the main problem of food waste, but they provide a model not just for small retailers, but for the big chain stores, too. Retailers do not want to run out of food. It makes the shops look shabby, for one, and it means lost sales. If the retail price of any item is two to three times the cost price, it is better to waste two of each product than lose even just one sale by selling out of it. This is the critical equation that all food retailers juggle with. The size of profit margins and the low cost of food-waste disposal influences the amount of waste retailers create as an “affordable” by-product of their marketing policies.
Although it may seem counterintuitive – and although they are still culpable for wasting huge amounts of good food – it is the big supermarkets that have developed some of the most efficient systems for food management and processing in the whole food industry. There is a way, then; we just need to encourage, if not demand, the will.
Most people would not willingly consign tracts of Amazon rainforest to destruction simply through a few trips to the shops. But we do it every day. Throughout the developed world, food is treated as a disposable commodity, disconnected from the social and environmental impact of its production. In a globalised food industry, almost everything we eat – from bananas to locally grown beef – is connected to the system of world agriculture. Demand for food in one part of the world indirectly stimulates the creation of fields thousands of miles away. The onward march of agriculture into natural forests, currently most visible in Latin America and south-east Asia, means that on one side of the frontier there are pristine forests, on the other monocultures of soya beans, oil palms and grass. And at the margin there is a strip of fire and an army of loggers. Countless species of plant and animal have been lost and billions of trees destroyed to satisfy our hunger.
If affluent nations stopped throwing away so much food, pressure on the world’s remaining natural ecosystems, and on the climate, would be lifted. It’s a far vaster landscape than the pigpen where I raised Gudrun, and yet the lessons I learnt as a schoolboy picking up leftovers at the canteen apply. Supermarkets, restaurants, canteens and manufacturers must stop being so negligent. When surplus does arise, it should be given to charities for redistribution to the needy. Anything that cannot be eaten by people should, wherever possible, be fed to livestock. Consumers, meanwhile, must simply stop wasting food. The history of human society shows that frugality comes in cycles. In times of plenty, waste is an affordable luxury but as soon as resources are stretched, voices urging parsimony come to the fore. Jesus Christ, Muhammad, John Locke all repeated the same message: that wasting food is wrong. In this time of recession and thrift, food waste is at least beginning to decline. With the global population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, the question remains whether, this time round, we can learn these lessons for good.
This is an edited extract from Tristram Stuart’s book, ‘Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal’,
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