Tristam Stuart Uncovers the Global Food Waste Scandal

Maria Martinez Romero | SIPA Class of 2018

Some voices urge to increase global food production to feed the nine billion people that are expected on the planet by 2050, but Tristam Stuart, in his talk organized by SIPA-Food Systems Group on March 8, argued that we produce enough food to feed 12 billion people, leading to an enormous food waste.

Tristam is better known as the ¨Guru of the food waste fight” and dedicates himself to uncovering what he calls “the global food waste scandal”, which he explains in his books: The Bloodless Revolution (2006), and his prize-winning book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin, 2009). “There is no nutritional need to increase food production”, he said during his talk at SIPA. “Most countries in the world have an unnecessary surplus, which reflects their levels of food waste”.

To come to this conclusion, Tristam took the food supply of every single country and compared it to what was actually likely to be consumed. He found that as a country gets richer, it invests more in increasing its food surplus in shops and restaurants. Most European and North American countries fall between 150 and 200 percent of the nutritional requirements of their populations. But what is even more surprising is that if we include not just the food that ends up in shops and restaurants, but also the food that people feed to livestock to produce increasing amounts of meat and dairy products, “a country like America has four times the amount of food that it needs,” Tristam said.

Tristam also talked about the ecological consequences of producing this unnecessary amount of food. “We are reaching the ecological limits that our planet can bear, we chop down forests, we extract water from depleting water reserves, we emit fossil fuel emissions in the quest to grow more and more food.”

When we think about food waste, we mainly think about all the food that ends up in the bins of supermarkets and restaurants. But according to Tristam, this is just the “tip of the iceberg”. In the supply chain, he gave the example of farmers, who throw away sometimes a third or even more of their harvest because of cosmetic standards. “All being discarded, perfectly edible, because they’re the wrong shape or size,” Tristam said.

Declaring this the ‘global food waste scandal’ is not enough for him.  He urged students to take action. “We, the people, do have the power to stop this tragic waste of resources if we regard it as socially unacceptable to waste food on a colossal scale, if we make noise about it, tell corporations about it, tell governments”. He pushed Tesco, the British supermarket, to reduce the food waste that cutting the two ends of green beans represented. They got to reduce 30% of the waste of beans by cutting just one side and changing the package to one more flexible in which different sizes of beans could fit. Furthermore, the longevity of the beans was extended by this small change.

Tristam wants to build a global movement to fight food waste. This is possible through campaigns and events organized around the world. “It has kicked off globally, the quest to tackle food waste,” he said. “Feeding the 5,000 is an event I first organized in 2009. We fed 5,000 people all on food that otherwise would have been wasted. Since then, it’s happened again in London, it’s happening internationally, and across the country. It’s a way of organizations coming together to celebrate food, to say the best thing to do with food is to eat and enjoy it, and to stop wasting it.”

Another idea to stop wasting food came from a Columbia student, Hannah Dehradunwala, another protagonist of this first event of the Food 4 Thought Spring Series hosted by SIPA-Food Systems Group. Hannah is the founder director of ¨Transfernation¨, an NGO which developed a new app that allows volunteers, soup kitchens and corporations to connect directly with each other. She noticed that huge amounts of food were wasted in New York city each day after social events. She thought about how to bring these leftovers to shelters where people need them and found that the infrastructure needed to do it was ready to be used. “It is like an Uber for food waste,” explains Hannah. She founded Transfernation three years ago when she was finishing her undergraduate studies, and this is now her full-time job. So far, this NGO has fed more than 45,000 people and prevented more than 55,000 pounds of food from ending up in the bin.

The bin is the final destination of thousands of slices of fresh bread every single day. “Has anyone seen a supermarket or sandwich shop anywhere in the world that serves sandwiches with crusts on it?” asked Tristam. He then decided to turn bread into beer. Tristam founded Toast Ale, a beer launched in the UK in 2016, that is made using fresh, surplus bread. He now urges people globally to stop wasting food and to celebrate the solutions “getting wasted in waste”.