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CREDIT: Shutterstock

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: The Next Pig Idea

Jun 15, 2015

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tristram Stuart picks his words carefully. He is a master of the art and science of oratory and after an hour-long conversation, one hangs up the phone wanting to join his cause and unable to find any flaws in his arguments. Stuart is the founder of an organization called FeedBack, which tackles food waste across the supply chain, globally, "from plant to plate." We got on the phone to talk about one of his campaigns: The Pig Idea.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Thousands of years ago people started domesticating wild pigs. They used their leftover food to feed the pigs, which, in turn, gave them a new source of food. When did we start moving away from this age-old tradition?

TRISTRAM STUART: This practice was a way of increasing the total food availability within our system. However, in the 1800s in Europe, we started to see an increase in the amount of arable crops available. Through the 20th century, with the intensification of agriculture and the extension of the agricultural frontier into the world's remaining forests in South America, the availability of soy and maize for livestock went beyond the scale that had ever been before. And that's where we started to find an economic rationale—it's not an ecological rationale—for diverting those arable crops into livestock. That is now the dominant way of rearing livestock globally.

IRENE PEDRUELO: So because we were overproducing we started giving pigs food that could be perfectly well be eaten by humans?

TRISTRAM STUART: The irony is that the ecological rationale for domesticating those species has now been turned partly on its head; and rather than turning waste into food, we are actually now turning food into waste through our intensive agriculture livestock system. Pigs and chickens are being reared on crops that have been grown specifically for them; and those are crops that could have been eaten directly by people. It's much less efficient from a resource utilization perspective to convert arable crops into meat and dairy products and chicken and eggs, than it is to eat those crops directly.

IRENE PEDRUELO: In order to combat this shift you decided to launch The Pig Idea. What are you fighting for?

TRISTRAM STUART: The goal of The Pig Idea is to say that the way in which we are producing food at the moment is contributing to climate change and the loss of biodiversity, and is still leaving a billion people in the world hungry. In fact, most of the solutions that have been called for—namely, to increase food production globally—are the very things that undermine the long-term food security for the planet. Because the way in which we are increasing food globally to meet the increasing demand is by extending the agricultural frontier, by chopping down the world's remaining forests to increase the amount of area under cultivation to grow more and more food. We are actually threatening the viability of the biosphere by contributing to global warming, soil erosion, and the interruption of hydrological cycles. And that is the one thing that really does threaten the ability of our food system to feed all of the 9 billion people expected to live on the planet by 2050. The Pig Idea is saying that what we need to do is return to the original ecological rationale of domesticating these species (pigs and chickens) and that is to make them the recyclers, the ultimate recyclers of food waste back into food.

IRENE PEDRUELO: The increase in the amount of arable crops available is not the only factor that impacted a shift on pigs' diet. Most pigs throughout Europe are being fed soy today, but it was not always like that. In 2002, after the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom, the EU member states passed a regulation ensuring that the feeding of catering waste to animals of "susceptible species" like pigs was prohibited. In other words, the pig bin stopped being part of every canteen and kitchen.

TRISTRAM STUART: If you look at the traditional food systems that have used pigs and continue to use pigs in most of the world and throughout most of history, recycling food waste for pigs and chickens is the norm. The exception is this island we call Europe and those states in America that ban feeding catering waste and any animal byproducts to livestock. This was a risk-averse piece of legislation to ban it. It was precisely to prevent animal disease. That is both historically and geographically an isolated incident of an agricultural system that is being so removed from its original ecological and economic rationale that it manages to externalize all of the costs associated with its current mode of production so that something so completely irrational, destructive, environmentally irresponsible, and scientifically unjustifiable could actually take place.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Foot and mouth disease, classical fever, African swine disease, etc., have been spread within pig herds in Europe and other parts of the world where there was food waste that had been "badly treated." What does that mean?

TRISTRAM STUART: It's an obligation of any food provider that they should only provide food that is not going to make the consumer sick. We expect that of the food system. With food for pigs and chickens the same thing applies, but unfortunately the system has not been very well-managed, and contaminated feed has gotten into the feed supply chain. By properly treated I'm referring to this amazing piece of technology called "cooking." What you have to do is ensure that the catering waste is brought to a sterilization temperature, and all of those diseases are killed, in the same way that if you cook a piece of chicken you ensure that any salmonella or E.coli that is on that meat is killed. You have to do it for people and you have to do it for pigs and chickens as well.

IRENE PEDRUELO: So what do you propose?

TRISTRAM STUART: Rather than banning the feeding of food waste to all livestock in the way Europe and half of the states of the United States of America have done, what should be put in place is a robust system for recycling of food waste so we maximize that incredible opportunity for resource efficiency and food security in the way that has traditionally been done.

Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback.

IRENE PEDRUELO: How do you envision that "robust system" working? Walk me through it.

TRISTRAM STUART: Countries like Japan or South Korea don't ban this practice; they actually put it at the top priority of their food recycling goals. They've invested in centralized food waste recycling plants to collect waste food from manufacturers, from caterers, from retail outlets, and they put it through a sterilization system. In the same way that any other thing that needs to be cooked just goes through a tube, you can stick a monitor in that tube to ensure everything going through the tube has reached a certain temperature. You can attach the monitor to a computer and attach the computer to a government authority that has oversight to ensure that everything is being properly sterilized in that factory. It then can be inoculated with lactobacillus and turned into a kind of preserved food waste yogurt and got out to pig farms in the vicinity.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Where have you seen these food waste recycling plants work?

TRISTRAM STUART: The best systems I've seen are peri-urban; they are near to cities in Japan. Rather than buying soy and maize, farmers there are buying "eco-feed," as it's labeled over there. This is not only much cheaper for the farmers, who save 50 percent of their feed cost, but it also contributes to lessening the pressure on world food supplies and avoids food waste going over to landfill and creating another environmental disaster.

IRENE PEDRUELO: The agriculture industry is known for being increasingly yield-oriented. How will you convince farmers used to fattening their chickens in eight weeks with grain to switch to the "old" system?

TRISTRAM STUART: The whole point about this particular innovation is that it is in the interest of the farming industry. And that is because it is cheaper to use recycled food waste than to buy increasingly expensive soy and maize. It is by no means an argument that it is not compatible with the commercial interests of pork producers. Food and feed prices are going to go up, they are going to be increasingly volatile, and if we have pork industries and chicken industries that are completely dependent on a commodity that is going to have a volatile price then you are entrenching yourself in a system that could end up with serious problems.

IRENE PEDRUELO: If there are all these benefits, what is holding up the process of reincorporating food waste into the food chain?

TRISTRAM STUART: The only barrier to this big rollout is misguided legislation; a piece of red tape that gets in the way of something that should have been properly managed, properly governed, and properly regulated. In place we have millions and millions of dollars worth of food waste that costs industry a lot of money to get rid of. You have to pay to get rid of food waste, which actually has a value and can be sold as feed to livestock farmers. And that is economically perverse as well as ecologically damaging. The fact that it is also scientifically unjustified gives you reasons to say that. What we are arguing for here is something that has a long history, and that is totally within the realms of feasibility in the sense of what we are able to do right now.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Do you see Europe and the United States treating this issue similarly?

TRISTRAM STUART: In the United States in particular, you have a really obscene situation. In Europe there's at least the rationale that the whole of the European Union has produced a piece of legislation, so they tried to create this kind of bio safe zone. It's the wrong kind of legislation, but at least there's some inherent logic to it. In the United States, it's up to states to decide whether garbage feeding is permitted, and the result is that you have this patchwork of states that permit it and states that don't permit it. The states that don't permit it don't get the resource benefits of allowing it and they don't get the biosecurity either—because since when do animal diseases observe state boundaries?

IRENE PEDRUELO: The Pig Idea, as a campaign, has helped raise awareness of the food waste issue. But where are you on convincing policymakers to put food waste back in the supply chain?

TRISTRAM STUART: The Pig Idea campaign has two primary objectives: one is to change the legislation anywhere that it exists that restricts it unnecessarily. But the other objective is to say: even within the present legislative framework, there is a lot of food that the law does allow to be utilized but which isn't reaching livestock for various reasons. And our objective is to raise awareness, make connections between farm producers and waste producers, and to share the best practice and knowledge about how to do food waste recycling as livestock feed legally. Obviously, within a campaign like this there are short-term wins and long-term goals. And the short-term wins, which are getting more businesses to recycle food waste, have been phenomenally successful.

IRENE PEDRUELO: What about the long-term wins?

TRISTRAM STUART: The European Commission is not a fast moving beast. Both in the United States and in the European Commission there is a lot of interest about what these policies' rationales are and how we can actually look at them and say, "Well maybe this isn't best practice." Announcements will be made soon. Over the course of 2015, there will be a whole lot of work on this.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Are you concerned that The Pig Idea encourages the perpetuation of meat production and consumption, which happens to be a highly energy intensive and inefficient endeavor?

TRISTRAM STUART: I don't see us as promoting the consumption of ecocidal pork, quite the opposite. The Pig Idea campaigns for the production of pork and chicken to be more sustainable, but in so doing, it has done a very good job of raising awareness among the general public about what the environmental cause of the current meat production system is. People became much more aware about the link between European pork production and Amazon deforestation, and one of the very good pieces of evidence I can give you for that very reason is that the National Pig Association had internal meetings in which they said: "This [Pig Idea] campaign is associating our industry with Amazon destruction. That is a threat to our business and therefore we will oppose it." In other words, they share our vision on food waste recycling, but despite that, they still oppose our campaign because of this association.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Why did you make the pig the icon of your campaign and not the hungry people who could benefit from food waste?

TRISTRAM STUART: The top priority for food waste is to reduce it at the source wherever possible. The second priority is, if a business or an individual has food that they cannot sell the normal way, there are lots of avenues for redistributing that food through charitable means to feed the society's most vulnerable people. But that said, there will always be some food waste, so you are faced with the question: What is the best way of managing that? Through the data that I've generated and the environmental and social benefits that I've demonstrated, the next best option after you've exhausted all the opportunities for feeding people is to feed it to livestock.

IRENE PEDRUELO: There are some very strong advocates for composting. Is the composting solution a "competitor" of the food waste for livestock solution?

TRISTRAM STUART: We all got very excited about food waste over the last several years and unfortunately one of the main responses to that problem has been to say, "Oh, well, let's send the crop for composting and then the problem goes away." Wrong. In the best case scenario, when you put some of that food into an anaerobic digestion that can be spread on the land, you only recoup, if you take the example of tomatoes, less than 1 percent of the energy that went into growing those tomatoes. You recoup none of the land that went into growing those tomatoes; you recoup none of the water that went into growing those tomatoes; you recoup none of the biodiversity impact that occurred as a result of growing those tomatoes. So the idea that anaerobic digestion somehow gets rid of the problem of food waste is frankly nefarious. And the part of The Pig Idea is to say, "Look, before you go down that route, there is a next-best option which is better than that: and that is to feed it to livestock as a preferable outlet."

IRENE PEDRUELO: Do you think the general public knows that meat consumption is detrimental to the environment?

TRISTRAM STUART: Chatham House did a global survey on the level of awareness on the part of the general public about the environmental impact of various different things: deforestation, transportation, industry, buildings, etc. And it was very clear that across the world there is a disproportionate missing level of awareness on the environmental impact of meat consumption. At the same time it is amazing the receptiveness [to the issue] that people express verbally, at least in surveys, and their willingness to adjust their consumption patterns in order to reduce the environmental impact. Whether that will actually translate into behavior change is yet to be seen.

IRENE PEDRUELO: The world is so focused on CO2 emissions and global warming that "as Chatham House put it in its report" there is an "awareness gap" around what the food industry really means for the environment.

TRISTRAM STUART: Food production is the single biggest impact that humans have had on the planet, without any comparison, historically, and still at the present. The fact that in my lifetime 50 percent of all animals but amphibians and plants have been wiped out of the face of the planet is mostly because of food production. We've all seen how global warming has become the principle environmental issue of our time (and of course it is a vitally important issue), but in a way it has eclipsed some of the more traditional environmental concerns. My aim is to bring people's attention back to the land and how we are using it.

IRENE PEDRUELO: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that more than one third of the food produced today is lost or wasted along the supply chain. However, food waste won't be a priority in the conversations happening at the climate conference in Paris next December. How are you planning to move the food waste recycling agenda forward?

TRISTRAM STUART: An agreement that will prevent climate change is essential for food security. But I would add two other things: Firstly, reducing food waste is one of the relatively easy ways in which countries, individuals, and companies can help to meet emissions reductions. If we take a very rough estimate, around 10 percent of all emissions of rich countries come from growing, producing, cooking, and distributing food that is never eaten. So there's a very clear opportunity there. But beyond emissions reductions, there is a productionist paradigm out there at the moment that says we need to increase food production globally by 2015 to feed the 9 billion people expected on the planet and to meet this rising demand, as a result of global diet shift in increasingly affluent countries like India and China. Unfortunately, the way in which we are meeting that increased demand (that is what it is, it's not "a need;" it's an "increased demand"), is by increasing the amount of land on the production and by chopping down the world's remaining forests.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Will humans accept at some point that they should be eating and buying less than they do?

TRISTRAM STUART:I would like to see a world in which the self-interest of individuals and societies as a whole has made us realize that we need to live with ecological limits and that we can feed the world without destroying the planet, and that we indeed need to do that to feed the world. I don't think that's unachievable. I think we have a window of opportunity, and we need to seize it. But I am quite pessimistic about whether we will seize that opportunity.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Why are you pessimistic?

TRISTRAM STUART:Because of all the main global trends are going in the wrong direction. Per capita consumption is accelerating, the emissions are still accelerating in the wrong direction and we've known about climate change for decades now, and we are still exploring for oil in the Artic—I mean! We are getting social license for practices that we know for a fact are going to screw the planet and we still let it happen. I do believe, however, that societies in the past have made sudden dramatic changes in the ways they operate, and they have averted catastrophe, and I believe it is possible for us to do that.

Policy Innovations' Six Quick Questions

Where do you see yourself in 20 years? I would bifurcate the answer into where I want to see myself in 20 years. I would like to see in 20 years a complete secession of the mass extinction of ants that we are currently driving through the way in which we are producing food globally.

What other obsessions do you have? Picking mushrooms. I'm a hunter-gatherer, in the same way that I like to go out and save food and feed it to pigs.

What are the main three attributes of an innovator? I think the single biggest is an ability to not see barriers.

What does social innovation mean to you? It's an innovation that has a social benefit. I will put a little word of caution around this concept. It's troubled me slightly. Social innovation, social enterprise, and impact investment have become the buzz concepts in the social transformation and justice movement. That whole sector of using business models to tackle global problems—I believe in the strengths of those models; what concerns me is that they become such a dominant paradigm. What you often find, particularly in the funding world, is that the first question people ask you is: "What's your business model?" I think about some of the really iconic social transformation leaders in the history of the world— Gandhi, Jesus, the Buddha, Martin Luther King—and I imagine them operating in this new paradigm and somebody saying, "Wow you got a really amazing social movement going on, and you are really changing people's attitudes, but, what's your business model?" I think people have gone a little bit overly excited about the need for everything to have that angle. I think there is a world for doing things that aren't within the world of business. Indeed for me, the most interesting things are actually the things which are difficult to make money from. Those are the things where we need to put our energy so they happen anyway, because they have to.

I am afraid of … the mass extinction of ants.

Life is about … living the values, the beliefs, and the love that really motivate all of our actions.

What would you tell your younger self if you had to start over? It's my younger self who constantly tells me not to compromise.

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