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English author and historian Tristram Stuart poses on July 10, 2012 in Paris. Stuart will release on French chanel Canal + a documentary film entitled "Global gachis" (global waste) on food waste.

Tristram Stuart, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, visits a Paris market as he works to reduce food waste around the globe.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Andrea Stone

for National Geographic

Published June 17, 2014

British activist Tristram Stuart wants you to clean your plate—or just ladle less food onto it.

The author of the revelatory book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal was recently named one of National Geographic's newest emerging explorers for his work on reducing food waste. He estimates that less than a quarter of the food wasted in Western countries could feed the planet's one billion hungry people.

Stuart has initiated numerous campaigns to call attention to the food we waste. Among them: Feeding the 5000, a free public feast on what would have been wasted food, and the volunteer Gleaning Network, which harvests surplus produce that would otherwise rot.

When did you first get interested in the issue of food waste?

When I was 15, I was living on a small and disused farm in England, and I decided to buy some pigs and chickens. Buying pig feed was hugely expensive and had God knows what impact on the environment, so I decided to get free waste food from my school cafeteria. The local baker, the greengrocer, the market, and a farmer who was discarding potatoes because they were the wrong shape or size for the supermarkets—this was great as a teenager. I had loads of delicious pork that I sold to my friends' parents.

But I was aware that we were wasting food at every link in the supply chain, from the farm down to the plate. I was an environmentalist from before I can remember. I thought there's surely something better than chucking that food away, and I made that into a public campaign on food waste.

Why was no one paying attention until your book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal was published?

When I started in 2001—literally it's almost unbelievable, but you couldn't find any information on food waste. You didn't find any overt policies from business about cutting food waste. There was nothing from the government, except for the European landfill directive. But nothing about reducing food waste. It was hidden.

It's hidden by companies that don't want people to know how much they waste, because they know people will be shocked. It's hidden from ourselves, because we put food in the bin and we don't even realize how much it is. A very large part of the work has just been to expose the scale, add it up from farm to plate, and then you've got a really shocking figure, which is: At least a third of the world's food supply is wasted, and in rich countries the percentage is much higher.

How do we waste so much food?

It starts in the field. If you look at fresh produce, shops have cosmetic standards, particularly the big supermarkets. That means all the ugly things, stuff that doesn't comply with this kind of perfection standard gets wasted—and doesn't even come off the farm very often.

Factories waste on a routine scale. So if you're making sandwiches, the crusts are thrown away. If you're making pies, the trimming on your pastries is thrown away. At the retail level they overstock their shelves to create this image of a cornucopia and abundance, because that's what they think people are expecting to see. And it becomes like an arms race. They are treating food almost like Christmas decorations.

We shop in this kind of preemptive way in rich countries. It's like we don't value food enough, so we buy on the off chance that we're going to eat it.

How does waste happen in the developing world?

Waste in the land of hunger. Often smallholder farmers lack the resources to invest in basic, postharvest infrastructure to make sure that the crops they grow get to market. We're talking about simple things: grain stores, which in Africa are so poor that cereals often go moldy. Pasteurization, refrigeration, fruit crates, even shade in markets is absent very often. So crops are exposed to the hot sun, vermin, insects, and it gets wasted.

How can governments help trim food waste?

We can solve the global food-waste scandal without governments, but intervention from governments can be very helpful.

Very often the solution is deregulation, not more regulation. The European Union relaxing the laws on cosmetic standards was progressive. The European farm subsidy shifting away from subsidizing overproduction, in the way that the U.S. farm subsidy program has not—these were progressive, deregulatory measures that reduced food waste.

But there are some regulatory things that have helped. In Belgium they brought in a law that supermarkets should be obliged to offer any surplus foods to charities prior to disposing of it. In the United States you have something called the Good Samaritan Act, which protects companies if they donate food in good faith, and that gives them more confidence to give away their food and not get sued.

Last year the U.S. launched a Food Waste Challenge to reduce, recover, and recycle food waste. Your thoughts?

That kind of initiative has a very strong role to play in educating people in how they can better manage their food waste, so they save money and save impacts on the environment.

Top-down measures can be extremely helpful, but what we need is a popular revolution, a revolt against food waste. We, the public, need to say we're fed up with food waste.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

10 comments
Lonnie Averett
Lonnie Averett

I've worked in a lot of (non fast food) restaurants, cooking and/or serving food.  The amount of good food thrown away astonished me.  I wasn't allowed to take any of it home to feed my children, even though the food was going to be tossed into the garbage.  It's been awhile since I've worked in restaurants, so maybe things have changed.  I hope so.  Even if employees couldn't take the excess food home, there are many charities that could and would use it.

Gavin Heath
Gavin Heath

I agree with the deregulation of cosmetic food standards, but feel the fast food needs far more regulation on both manufacturing standards, as well as per capita networking of outlets, if you look at the distribution of outlets of the major fast food retailers, the issue becomes quite prevalent. I strongly feel that as most supermarket foods have to display the ingredients, allergens and nutritive breakdowns of their product, alcohol brands have to display the alcohol volume, cigarette brands have to display health warnings on their packaging, but the worlds biggest killer, being obesity and related conditions to obesity is fueled by the fast food trade and they don't even declare what is in their food on their packaging. That is ridiculous!

Anna F.
Anna F.

Another issue is that often farmers are offered to little for their crops, so they have to waste it in order not to let the prize be pushed down. They may offer it for charity, but it is not an organized movement. We need more farmers markets.

Rod Averbuch
Rod Averbuch

The large amount of fresh food waste is a lose-lose situation for the environment, the struggling families in today’s tough economy and for the food retailers. There is no single cure, or silver bulletfor food waste reduction therefore, we should address the food waste problem in every link in our food supply chain. For example, the excess inventory of fresh perishables close to their expiration on supermarket shelves, combined with the consumer “Last In First Out” shopping behavior, might be the weakest link of the fresh food supply chain.

The new open GS1 DataBar standard enables applications that encourage efficient consumer shopping by offering him automatic and dynamic purchasing incentives for fresh perishables approaching their expiration dates before they end up in a landfill.
The “End Grocery Waste” App, which is based on the open GS1 DataBar standard, encourages efficient consumer shopping behavior that maximizes grocery retailer revenue, makes fresh food affordable for all families and effectively reduces the global carbon footprint.

Rod Averbuch

Chicago, IL

Jim Baker
Jim Baker

This guy is deluded.  There was never any greater waste of food, or for that matter every other resource than when we each provided only for ourselves and the small community around us.  In 1900 50% of Americans lived on farms.  Today it's perhaps 2%.  We produce more food, and thus feed more people more efficiently than at any other time in history.  What this article sites as waste is actually the result of success, and what little waste there is is miniscule to the excess abundance that is actually exported to feed the world's hungry.  If food production waste were really an issue, then perhaps his efforts would be better directed at inefficiencies and food price rises brought about be government directives to limit food production and to produce corn for ethanol instead of food consumption.       

Jim Baker
Jim Baker

Come on, NAT GEO, you're better than this.  This idea is a ridiculous premise unsupported by any real thought or science.  This is like our mothers telling us at dinner to clean our plates because there were starving people in the world. As if by some magic or rationale only conceivable to a child that if we eat all our veggies some child on the other side of the world will suddenly have more to eat.  The problem is not one of waste but of distribution.  The costs of distribution far outweigh the costs of the food itself.  Who would ever conceive that it would be economically feasible to cut the crust off their PB&J and send it to some third world country?  Who would be so naive to imagine if we were able to cut additional food waste here that somehow those savings would get exported for free rather than be used to cut our own food costs here?  If you really want to help feed the hungry masses around the world then stop wasting free market capitalism in the west and send some of the extra abroad.   And stop wasting space in National Geographic on frivolous feel good articles.  

Louis  McNeil
Louis McNeil

People should stop eating scaleless fish. The bible says not to but people believe that the scaleless fish would hurt the body when in fact, the scaleless fish has a job to do, They keep the oceans clean. That is why we shouldn't eat them. Yes we are painted in a corner because the oceans do provide food for the world. We should have a time when we shouldn't be able to fish the oceans and allow the fish to repopulate it's self. We fish year round. Give the fish time to grow when and if we could not fish the oceans. I fish and love to fish and I have seen people taking small fish and not put them back. There should be a limit on the size and enforced when some is caught taking small fish.

Bee Farms
Bee Farms

Food is wasted because of the mass production method of producing food. 

It looks awful -- BUT IF YOU ABANDON the new way of producing food --- the whole world will STARVE TO DEATH VERY FAST. it's the truth. we are painted into a corner

Angie Peterson
Angie Peterson

@Jim Baker The cost of distribution leading to a lack of distribution is certainly an issue but it is a separate issue from food waste.  Food waste IS a real issue and it certainly doesn't make me feel good to reflect on the consequences or the attitudes that lead to it. 

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