Waste

Reviews Published July 17, 2009 in Published in the Independent, 17 July 2009

What do farmyard pigs eat?

Easy answer, you might think: they eat swill. They clean up after us, chomping on trough after trough of our potato peelings, carrot tops, sour milk and stale bread. In return, we turn them into bacon. Ungrateful, perhaps, but a system of mutual reliance which has worked across Europe for millennia.

Not any more. As Tristram Stuart explains in Waste, it is now illegal to feed pigs on swill in Britain, and in many other countries too. Chuck an apple core to your porker and you face prosecution. Instead, farmers and even smallholders are expected to buy in stocks of expensive, corporate pig feed, and dump their own waste food into landfill. Ostensibly a system designed to prevent diseases like foot and mouth, the pigswill ban is in reality a bureaucratic, illogical nightmare which is driving pig farmers out of business and contributing further to the already astonishing amount of food that goes to waste all over the world every day.

This is one of those books that everybody should read, but that too few probably will. In particular it should be read by every politician, bureaucrat, restaurateur and sandwich manufacturer in Britain; but anyone with a kitchen and an appetite will benefit, if that is the right word, from reading Waste. It may well change your view of the way we treat food forever. And that goes for those of you who, like me, smugly compost their kitchen waste, grow their own veg, reuse plastic bags and try not to buy any more packaging than necessary. However hard you try, Stuart shows that you are probably contributing to the biggest, most wasteful system of food production the world has ever seen.

Did you know, for example, that UK retailers waste 1.6 million tonnes of food every year? That manufacturers waste 4.6 million tonnes and that ‘consumers’ – that’s you and me – waste a further 4.1 million tonnes? All of this is potentially edible food that goes straight into the bin. And Stuart has more than statistics to prove it. He has lived, himself, off the contents of such bins, and lived well – a habit that sounds disgusting until you see the photos he provides of what is thrown away daily by shops and cafes; meals, literally, fit for kings, all perfectly edible, chucked out because of overcautious sell-by dates, lack of shelf space, bad planning or simple lack of interest in the consequences. The amount of food wasted in this way, says Stuart, could feed the world’s starving many times over – or rather, the cropland taken up to produce it for us could instead be producing for them.

If you have ever been taken in by the talk of an efficient ‘free market’ in which superstores and food manufacturers produce food by the leanest, most efficient methods, think again. Stuart will take you to farms where entire fields of spinach lie rotting because a few blades of grass have been found growing between the rows. He will show you the vast piles of carrots rejected by Asda for not being perfectly straight (between 25% and 40% of all British fruit and veg crops are wasted in this way every year). He will take you to the factory where 13,000 slices of good, edible bread are thrown away every single day because Marks and Spencer orders its sandwich manufacturers to waste 17% of every loaf they use. He will give you an insight into how whole species of fish are being driven to the edge of extinction so that London’s sushi bars can dump dustbins of rare tuna into landfill every day. And he will demonstrate how our spineless politicians, in thrall to the gods of the market, refuse to impose any effective rules on these scandalously wasteful companies, and how fast things might change if they did.

And there are solutions: this is the book’s final, hopeful message. Stuart provides us with a manifesto for what he calls ‘Utrophia’ – a land of good eating. He wants to scrap output-based farm subsidies, impose mandatory food waste production targets on companies, ban the sending of waste food to landfill, ban the discarding of ‘bycatch’ in the fishing industry and much more. It’s a workable, well-researched and practical plan which only awaits a political party with the guts and the gumption to start making it happen.

Oh, and as for pigswill: Stuart wants that ban lifted. In fact, he wants to see the feeding of swill to pigs made mandatory. When you see that happening down on the farm, you’ll know that perhaps some sanity has started to prevail.

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