Tristram Stuart is triggering a global movement to significantly reduce food waste, which today leads to one-third of all food being wasted at a global level. By engaging every stakeholder in the value chain, from farmers to supermarkets, policy-makers and consumers, Tristram is creating a series of powerful levers to shift markets and change the food system.
The New Idea
Tristram Stuart developed early on in his life an acute concern for the sustainability of the Earth’s ecosystems. Over the past decade he has identified food waste as a key lever for reforming land use and addressing climate change. Since 2009 he has been working to launch a broad-based, united global movement against food waste which will shift the food production system to dramatically decrease levels of waste.
Faced with the challenges of systematic over-production of food, overly strict cosmetic standards on farm produce, and endemic wastage along the whole supply chain, Tristram has designed a multi-tiered approach to reduce waste throughout the food system – not just consumer-level waste. This builds substantially on the work of existing charities in the UK which focus on a single aspect of food waste, such as redistributing unsold food from supermarkets and their supply chains to charities that feed people suffering from food poverty. At the farm level, Tristram’s team is working to relax cosmetic standards in supermarkets and EU policy, and drawing together pools of volunteers in “gleaning networks” to harvest surplus food across the UK and the EU. At the retailer level, Tristram works with major UK supermarkets to analyze their supply chains and launch large-scale waste reduction initiatives. Six major UK retailers, with over 75% of the UK market share, are now committed to publicly disclose their food wastage figures with varying levels of transparency; Tesco is the first to report transparently and have their waste statistics audited by a third party. At the policy level, Tristram has worked to raise food waste up the government agenda, including collaborating to successfully push for the creation of a “Groceries Code Adjudicator” to oversee supermarket commercial relationships with farmers, and aims to change EU policy so that waste food can be safely converted into animal feed.
However in order to drive lasting, fundamental change in the food industry, Tristram’s approach not only tackles these supplier-side issues, but also demand-side issues: changing consumer mindsets. To reach a critical mass, he works to influence media and other key stakeholders, and crucially pioneered a mass-mobilization event called “Feeding the 5000”. Here, Feedback – the charity Tristram founded – draws together a network of local partners to co-create an event where 5000 hot lunches, made from fresh but cosmetically imperfect food that would otherwise have been wasted, are given away for free in a single afternoon. The event format has now been taken up internationally over 20 times. Ultimately, Tristram is launching a global movement to end food waste, by engaging the media, changing government and business policy, conducting hard-hitting research, working through partnership and changing mindsets. Tristram’s innovative advocacy style and practical solutions have helped to elevate food waste from a non-issue several years ago to one now recognized as an urgent international priority, with the UK in particular leading the way in Europe.
Around the world, one-third of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste. This waste contributes to a food industry which causes 80% of deforestation worldwide, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, 70% of fresh water use, and is the largest single cause of biodiversity loss. THE FAO estimates that every year, the production of food that is wasted generates 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and uses up to 1.4 billion hectares of land. As population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the ecological impact of agriculture is set to expand still further, unless the current food system can be radically transformed. At the same time, in the UK alone 5.8 million people cannot afford a decent diet. Although the causes of hunger are complex, these figures point to an inefficient and flawed food system at every level of the value chain, from farm to landfill, which fails to serve social, environmental or economic interests.
At the farm level, 20-40% of many British-grown crops are rejected even before they reach the shops. A key factor is their not matching supermarkets’ strict cosmetic standards, which demand uniform shapes, narrow sizes limits, and unblemished peels. A second factor causing waste is food retailers changing their forecasts or cancelling orders at the last minute after crops have already been grown, and leaving the entire cost of this waste on the suppliers. This reflects a broken system where farmers around the world have little power compared to multinational food retailers.
There are further systemic causes of waste at the level of food retailers. A number of start-ups and charities aim to use some of the millions of tonnes of useable food which are wasted across the supply chain. To date, many efforts to tackle food waste focus on the end of the supply chain, consumer behavior and waste disposal. Household waste equates to over 7 million tonnes per year in the UK, and many apps and guides provide tips for customers to cook with leftovers, plan their shopping, or better understand food labelling. However these solutions focus only on the end of the supply chain: there is a need to address the root causes of food waste throughout the system in a more preventative approach.
Tristram knows that tackling any one issue in isolation will not provide the systemic change required to significantly reduce food waste, so he has developed a cross-cutting strategy for each level of the value chain: from consumer awareness, to influencing farms, supermarkets and government policy.
The first tier of Tristram’s strategy is to engage the public with the issue of food waste, as bringing consumers alongside is a key driver for rapid market reform. In 2009, Tristram therefore created “Feeding the 5000” as a mass public event first held in London’s Trafalgar Square. In this model, he convenes key players – from grassroots organizations, to global poverty NGOs, and local government agencies – to form an alliance behind the food waste campaign and event. The coalition then shares resources, works collaboratively to reach the mass public, and puts food waste on their own organizations’ agendas, as it is a cross-cutting issue affecting poverty, nutrition, development, and the environment. The events are kept low-cost by leveraging donated food and being led by volunteers, chefs and citizens, but funding is not linked to corporate sponsorship. In this way, Tristram has designed an event which serves as a citizen-led public outcry against food waste, with enough momentum to engage the media, policy-makers and other stakeholders. Feeding the 5000 events have helped launch national and local movements with policy aims across Europe, including through 4-year EU funding from the FUSIONS program. These replications are either spearheaded by Tristram’s team working in the organization he set up in 2013 called Feedback, or simply receive mentorship but are managed independently.
The second tier of Tristram’s strategy is to focus on the hidden causes of food waste early in the supply chain: at the farm level. He has taken the age-old practice of “gleaning” surplus food from farms, but given it a 21st century revival using social media and an open network approach. A hub-and-spokes model reaches across the country: local Volunteer Directors in each region are coordinated by a small central team. Feedback helps provide transport logistics, back-end structure, branding, introductions to farmers, and streamlined connections to a new national network of re-distribution partners such as food banks. In 2013, 48 tonnes of produce were gleaned by 200 volunteers, and over 1 million portions of food have been re-distributed so far. Feedback is already helping to advise additional networks around the world. Tristram hopes to cement this practice into policy changes which incentivize the redistribution of surplus. In addition, Tristram is tackling surplus production in the first place. Feedback successfully campaigned to relax retailers’ cosmetic standards which turn away so much fresh produce. Since the launch of their campaign, ugly fruit and vegetables have become the fastest growing sector of the fresh produce market, and the National Farmers Union estimates that in 2012 this saved 300,000 tonnes of produce from being wasted. Feedback is simultaneously working to shift values and public mindsets so that more cosmetically imperfect fruit and vegetables can be sold.
Thirdly, Tristram is changing how supermarkets operate in the food system by holding them to account, and advising them on waste reduction strategies. Through research and continuing exposés Tristram showcases hidden causes of waste to the public and to the perpetrators. For example, Tristram highlighted the issue of food retailers cancelling forecast orders, calling it an Unfair Trading Practice. In 2013, the UK passed new legislation prohibiting the cancellation of forecast orders, created a “Groceries Code Adjudicator” to oversee this, and asked Feedback to help identify code violations. At the same time, Tristram campaigned successfully against contracts in which supermarkets imposed exclusivity clauses on their suppliers meaning that fit for consumption food that the retailers did not want could nevertheless not be sold to secondary markets. Already, a new contracting paradigm for the food market has emerged.
The largest food companies in the world, including Tesco, Carrefour, McCain, Norgesgruppe, and Ahold, acknowledge Tristram’s influence on shaping their policies on food waste. Each of them actively approached Tristram following his large public events and media exposure. The Feedback team have become experts for spotting waste reduction opportunities and solutions. Following farm and factory visits, they have helped save millions of pounds by adapting cosmetic standards, finding uses for food which would otherwise be wasted, and encouraging data collection and reporting so that measurable improvements will be made. As of 2014, six major UK retailers announced they would report food waste annually. To date, Feedback has not accepted payments from corporations or signed non-disclosure agreements, as they are careful not to jeopardize their independence or ability to publicly criticize companies when needed. Tristram also sees a role for diverse new businesses to emerge as part of the nexus of players tackling food waste. For example, after Feedback worked with partners at McKinsey, one of their consultants set up their own very successful food waste avoidance firm, and remains a key partner and mentor for Tristram.
Finally, Tristram is influencing the policy level, to hold the food production system to account and shift market forces to reduce waste. Where policy-related solutions already exist, he works to highlight them. For example: after inviting the UK food redistribution charity FareShare to form part of the first Feeding the 5000 event and campaign, it has been mentioned in all subsequent UK government policy papers; every major UK supermarket now has a relationship with a food redistribution charity and their food redistribution volumes have more than doubled. Where solutions do not exist however, Tristram devises new initiatives. Thus a key aim for Feedback is for the EU to review their ban on feeding catering and other waste to pigs and chickens, and introduce a robust legal framework for safely processing the feed to prevent animal disease. At least 20 times more carbon dioxide can be saved by feeding food waste to livestock (which also decreases reliance on imported, soy-based animal feed) compared to sending it for anaerobic digestion. Tristram therefore launched “The Pig Idea” as a campaign and mass public event, to raise awareness of the issue with all key stakeholders from farmers to health officials. Another key political shift for Tristram is the concept of the “Food Waste Pyramid”. The Pyramid illustrates how tackling food waste early on in the supply chain is much more cost-effective, and has more environmental impact, than focusing on diverting wasted food from landfill into compost at the end of the supply chain. It outlines simple measures to cut food waste, and their order of priority. Feedback has introduced this framework to governments and businesses around the world; it was adopted among others by the Greater London Authority, and by the EU-funded FoodSave project. Other key policy achievements include the EU and UN adopting Tristram’s suggested target of reducing food waste by 50%, and inputting into key UK policy documents.
Already, there are strong signs of a broad-based movement against food waste emerging internationally. Tristram has written a prize-winning book which has been translated into several languages including Chinese, Spanish, French, Japanese, Thai and German, co-created documentaries, and speaks at key conferences around the world to reach key influencers from the media, academia, business and government sectors to raise food waste up the agenda. The impact is already spreading across multiple European countries, and Tristram is starting to influence East Africa and the USA. Feedback’s open, collaborative approach has also helped build a whole citizen sector ecosystem around food waste: his work has directly inspired or mentored a growing cluster of independently-run food waste projects and start-ups, with a particularly vibrant community now present in the UK. Feedback works to bring the global movement together to further build momentum: in October 2013, their anti-food waste day featured independently-run events in 15 cities across Europe and into North America.
Tristram grew up in an old farm in Sussex, and developed a love for nature before he can remember. He spent as much time as he could outdoors, exploring, playing or hunting. His father was an amateur naturalist and taught him to be a proficient wild mushroom gatherer before he entered primary school. Tristram became deeply concerned with the implications of climate change in the 1980s, researching it for his high school essay and organizing school assemblies on the topic. Aged 10, he wrote one of his first campaigning letters, asking the local McDonald's to stop using Styrofoam, whose production released CFC greenhouse gases. To his surprise, he got a letter back announcing all McDonalds were ending their CFC packaging. Although he then found out this was due to global policy changes, he was left with a strong belief in the power of “Everyone a Changemaker”.
In his teenage years, Tristram dreamed of creating a self-sustaining local community. At 15, he started rearing chickens and pigs, fed off food waste he collected from his school canteen, the local baker, greengrocer and the town market. He sold the produce to his school friends’ parents. The initiative grew slowly over time, and a small sustainable living community still exists on the farm today. As soon as Tristram graduated from high school in the mid-90s, he experienced the Newbury Bypass Protest. He then spent a year before studying at Cambridge to gain on-the-ground experience with the land use issues he cared about, working on a peasant farm in France and volunteering for forest conservation in the UK.
At University, Tristram co-led the Cambridge Green Action student society, developing campaigns with peers whom he still engages with Feedback today. He also came up with new business ideas, including student-run catering and cloakroom services, which gave the group unprecedented funding. As part of his literature degree, Tristram wrote a dissertation on vegetarians in the 17th and 18th century in whom he identified some of the origins of environmental thought in Europe, and became fascinated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a writer whose works subtly but successfully engaged society with new ways of thinking. Upon graduating, Tristram did humanitarian work in Kosovo and New Delhi, before getting a publishing deal and significant advance for his first book: The Bloodless Revolution, a development of the subject of his university dissertation. Published in 2006, the book was universally acclaimed and unveils how attitudes to meat consumption have changed over time – and indeed, how they need to change again in the face of acute environmental constraints.
Throughout university, Tristram had largely survived off of food scavenged from the waste bins of supermarket chains. In 2001 Tristram went public with a short film for the BBC TV Politics Show and a spate of newspaper and other articles. He framed the issue of food waste as an injustice and an environmental scandal, saying most supermarkets won’t even talk with re-distribution charities who could give all this wasted food to those in need. The message gained popular support and grew into a media storm both in the UK and overseas. Tristram realized food waste was a key element affecting the land use issues he cared passionately about, and has built on it as a low hanging fruit, in his lifelong mission to push the boundaries of practical new visions for sustainability. He began a multi-year project to research the global food supply chain, the scale of wastage, where the hidden causes of food waste were, and how to tackle the problem. The book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal was published in 2009, and serves as a manifesto for what would become Feedback’s work, laying out a global roadmap for change. It is still held up as the seminal text on the topic, and Tristram brought its findings to life in a popular TED Talk in 2012, which has been viewed over 1 million times.