A Goat on the Headmaster's lawn

An interview with Tristram Stuart OS

Tristram Stuart (OS 1995) was awarded the 2011 Sophie Prize, an international environmental award, for his 'innovative, energetic, humorous and thoughtful contributions to raising consciousness about one of today's most palpable environmental and moral scandals... food waste'.

Author of the award-winning Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin, 2009), he is a regular contributor to newspapers, radio and television programmes in the UK, US and Europe on the subject of food, the environment and freeganism.

Two of our students, Kathy Stocker and Adam Hill caught up with Tristram to ask him about what motivates his work, and his time at Sevenoaks School.

KS: Where did your original environmental concern stem from?

TS: It goes back further than I can remember, so it's difficult to say specifically, but all of these things come down to an appreciation of nature and the world we live in. If one doesn't care for and value nature, it's difficult to care about the destruction that is currently being wrought on it. I grew up in the countryside so my father taught me about wildlife; when I heard about deforestation I was appalled by it and I think that's really where it started. I remember sending a letter at the age of nine to my local McDonald's saying, 'I won't come to your restaurant any more until you stop using CFC packaging.' About a month later I received a response: 'You'll be pleased to hear that our branch of McDonald's and all other branches in the UK have stopped using CFC packaging.' Obviously as a young boy, I thought, 'I've really achieved something here.' Of course it was just a coincidence.

KS: What did you do at Sevenoaks?

TS: I remember giving an assembly when we were just turning 18 encouraging all my school friends to vote Green. By then I had been rearing animals (pigs and chickens at home) for a few years and that really helped fire my interest for land management, how we need it to survive and how we're misusing our land at the moment. I did actually try to extend those activities into school – I think there's an old school rule at Sevenoaks permitting the head boy of School House to keep a goat on the Head's lawn. I was a friend of the head boy of School House and we actually tried to get this goat, which I wanted to milk in first break (I thought I should be more productive during morning break), but unfortunately we weren't allowed.

KS: What would be the benefits to the wider world if all the pupils from Sevenoaks ate everything on their plate, without wasting any food?

TS: Everyone at Sevenoaks is part of the whole global food supply chain, and everything depends on the global system of food. I estimated, and the United Nations report has just backed up my claim, that about a third of the world's food supply is wasted, meaning essentially we are wasting resources – all the land and water and fossil fuels that goes into producing that food, putting an unnecessary strain on the climate, environment and global food supply. If we in the Western world are buying food we don't even need, we're making it scarcer for people elsewhere in the world who actually do need it. It's important to stress that I'm not talking about sending the leftovers from your school friends' plates out to Africa; I'm talking about not buying the food that you're not going to eat in the first place. By doing that we would reduce the pressure on global food supplies.

KS: You've adopted a concept called Freeganism, for which there is no exact meaning; can you define what this is and tell us what led you into this way of life?

TS: That's absolutely right, there's no clear definition, but I can tell you what it means for me - I take food out of supermarket bins and eat it. I do that for one reason only; to demonstrate the injustice of the global food waste scandal. My point is that bins should not be full of food that is fit for consumption, and my aim, if you like, is to bring an end to Freeganism by convincing businesses to stop filling bins with good food. I'm not proposing that Freeganism is a solution; it's a way of demonstrating the problem.

AH: What type of food do you find most often in these supermarket bins?

TS: The truth is that when you open up these bins it's like being in a supermarket. You have thousands of products, but instead of being on shelves they are wrapped up in plastic bags and put into a bin. One of the things I find most distressing, and that you find in large quantities, is bread. In the UK we buy and sell wheat on the world market and it's the very same market that people from Africa and Asia buy their wheat from. We in Britain buy millions of tonnes of wheat which we then put into bins, but which if we hadn't bought, and hadn't put into bins, would have remained on the world market available for the people in Africa and Asia to buy. That's one of the clear ways in which we are literally taking food off the tables of starving people.

AH: You have done some really interesting projects in the past, for example the awareness-raising 'Feeding the 5000' in 2009, in Trafalgar Square, when 5000 people were served curry, smoothies and fresh groceries from food that would otherwise have been wasted. What gave you this idea and did it achieve what you had hoped?

TS: It achieved far more than I hoped; the immediate aftermath was that the Minister for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs wrote to the major UK supermarkets requesting that they stopped destroying food, and instead give it to charities like FareShare, which redistribute surplus to people who need it. FareShare received extra funding, and the response from the industry is also quite encouraging; there are a number of measures now being adopted by most of the big supermarkets and other businesses to reduce waste. One of them is to increase donations and surplus food for redistribution. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee discussed the findings in my book and made a series of recommendations for food waste reduction.

So the impact on politicians and businesses was beyond what I expected and of course, through media coverage on the day, the message reached tens of millions of people in Britain and worldwide. I'm pleased to say there are replica events being organised in other countries and another in London this autumn. I am optimistic that this massive global problem can have simple solutions, ie eating and enjoying food instead of wasting it.

AH: Do you have any similar ideas for projects in the future, particularly in terms of working with schools?

TS: Yes, I co-founded an organisation which is doing projects in schools precisely on this issue. We are making smoothies from fruit that would have been wasted, and teaching kids about what they can do to reduce the global food waste scandal. I absolutely agree that there is a huge desire to address this theme in schools and I'm always amazed how clued up school kids are on this issue. Actually I think that young people's instinct to troubleshoot is often still intact, whereas when I give talks to adults they stroke their chins and say, 'That's terrible, but what we can do about it?' But give the same problems to children and they dive in immediately with a hundred solutions.

AH: Are you hopeful for the future?

TS: In terms of this particular campaign against food waste, I've never been involved in something that has been so readily taken up, with solutions sought and applied to situations. In that respect I have been amazed about how much good stuff has happened over the past few years.

In the wider perspective of environmental degradation, I'm sorry to say that the outlook isn't promising. We are in the middle of one of the world's several mass extinction events, in that we are exterminating species evolved over billions of years - a process that is showing no sign of diminishing. In fact it is increasing, and that is directly a result of the way we, in the rich world, consume. In South America and South-East Asia, forests are being destroyed in order to supply our markets with products like meat and vegetable oils. That is one of the worst things happening in the world today. However, the initiative on the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation tentatively agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 promises to introduce measures to try to put a value on keeping forests intact. This shows that there may be some cause for optimism, as regards preserving our forests. A glimmer of hope, if you like.

This article was original published in The Sennockian 2010-11