In Europe and North America, we throw away around half of our food. Yet even in nations with scores of hungry and malnourished people, there are staggering levels of food waste. India alone wastes $14 billion of agricultural produce every year because it lacks the infrastructure to bring harvests to market without spoiling. I know this because I’ve been reading Tristram Stuart’s book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, an enlightening, well-researched and passionately argued exploration into how the world’s surplus food mountains are an environmental liability — and a great opportunity.

When we talk I begin by asking him if there was a particular event that got him interested in food waste. “When I was 15 I got some pigs and I wanted to raise them in the most environmentally friendly way possible,” he says. That meant collecting scraps from his school kitchens, unsold bread from the local baker and potatoes from a farmer who gave away any spuds that were the wrong size or shape to adhere to retailers’ fussy cosmetic standards.

“I realized that I was turning landfill back into food,” he says. “And that the surplus food I was being given was perfectly fit for human consumption.” He also realized that he was merely scraping the surface of what was a huge problem, an idea that was further compounded by local supermarkets' refusal to discuss their food waste.

Close to 20 years on and things have improved, Stuart says, but supermarkets still don’t publish figures for their food waste. Their reasons are usually twofold, he says. One is that this is “commercially sensitive data” which their competitors could learn too much from. The other reason is that they simply don’t want a much savvier, more knowledgeable public to know. Yet the net result of such findings being published would only be positive, Stuart says. “If supermarkets started publishing how much food they wasted, they would start competing with each other to waste less.” In the same way, if supermarkets learned from each other’s results, they would reach these targets faster and more effectively.

One way to reduce food waste almost instantly, and painlessly, Stuart says, would be to divert it to feed pigs and chickens. He believes that the U.K.’s pig and chicken farms are a major and untapped resource and that instead of (or in addition to) spending lots of money on anaerobic digestion plants, we should be “recycling our food waste as swill.” An EU ban on feeding waste food to livestock (instituted after the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001) prevents this currently, but even with the ban in place, Stuart says, there are still some foods that can be fed to livestock. He gives me an example: One of the major sandwich suppliers to U.K. retail giant Marks & Spencer was throwing away 13,000 slices of bread a day (four slices per loaf — both crusts and the slice inside the crust) until last year when a proactive environmental manager decided to start sending it to anaerobic digestion plants instead. In April this year the bread waste was diverted once more, this time to feed livestock. What makes this story even more compelling is how economically viable the move turned out to be. Instead of costing M&S $98.4 a ton to send it to an anaerobic digestion plant, they are now making $37.7 a ton by selling it to farmers, saving them $163,930 a year. “It’s a no-brainer,” Stuart says loudly.

Another no-brainer, it seems, is the impact of cheap food. The wealthier we have become in the West, the less of our disposable income we spend on food (about 9 percent in the UK versus 85 percent in Pakistan, for instance). Somewhat counterintuitively perhaps, Stuart believes that the solution is not necessarily raising the price of food, but rather educating people that food production causes a third of our global carbon emissions and, quite simply, is too good to waste: “We should be teaching our kids to grow food.”

If a fiscal incentive were introduced, it should be “to make wasting food more expensive, rather than food itself.” And, on a related note, to ensure that the all-powerful supermarket chains also bear the cost and problem of food waste, instead of simply pushing it up the supply chain. Retail giants are expert at making forecast orders of suppliers in advance and then dropping the order by half on the day itself, for example. “The suppliers have clauses in their contracts stating that they can’t sell to anyone else,” Stuart says. Plus, the goods may already be wrapped in the retailers’ packaging. Since the supermarket is paying only for the actual order, instead of the forecast one, it does not lose any money and has no incentive to reduce waste.

With the world already producing more than twice the amount of food we actually consume, Stuart thinks it is madness to deforest more of the globe to feed the billion people going hungry. We should feed them from what we already have.

MNN homepage photo: GlobalP/iStockphoto