How Restaurant Waste Can Transform Our Food Systems

A dispatch from our friends at the Sustainable Food Trust that argues that if waste from restaurants and other parts of the food system could be used for livestock, we’d also be able to feed many more people.

Pigs were originally domesticated for two main reasons – pork production and waste management. For thousands of years, human populations across the world have lived side by side with pigs that convert their unwanted kitchen scraps into pork, as part of a holistic virtuous cycle. This relationship is illustrated by the Mandarin character for house, or Jia, which depicts a roof over a pig’s head – representing a sight seen throughout Asia of pigs living below the kitchen, perfectly positioned to receive their daily dose of vegetable trimmings and other scraps.

Yet across the European Union, not only are pigs an unfamiliar sight for children at home, but the practice of feeding these animals kitchen scraps is illegal. Many of our parents and grandparents can recall the council coming round to collect the ‘pig bins’ that contained their kitchen scraps – a practice that in fact continued right up into the 1990s. However, this all stopped in 2001 when a ban on catering waste came into force as a kneejerk reaction to the foot and mouth disease outbreak that hit the European community. The outbreak was eventually traced back to a single farm that had illegally fed its pigs untreated swill, which was thought to have contained infected (and perhaps illegally imported) meat.

Child with Pig BinBetween 2001 and 2003, the years immediately following the ban, soymeal imports increased by 3 million tonnes to replace the sudden reduction in ‘food waste’ feed. This figure has continued to increase, and today 97% of global soya crops are consumed by livestock. Not only are we feeding food to animals that could be eaten by people, a wholly inefficient use of resources, but we are also now destroying virgin rainforest in order to satisfy the growing global demand for meat. This is an expensive practice for livestock farmers, who generally spend between 60% and 70% of their costs on commercial feed. Smaller, higher welfare farms tend to be out-competed by larger, more intensive farms that can afford commercial grain due to economies of scale.

Although the meat industry in the UK makes use of over a million tonnes of food by-products annually in animal feed, there is still a large amount of waste being produced that can’t be consumed by humans but could be legally fed to pigs. Much more feed would be available if restaurants and other catering facilities were allowed to divert their food waste to feeding livestock. Tristram Stuart, food waste expert and author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, estimates that if 44 million tonnes of surplus unsellable food was diverted from landfill to feeding livestock, it could be used to produce 3 million tonnes of pork at a retail value of £15 billion. An example of the commercial benefits of this practice can be seen in Japan, where waste-fed ‘eco-pork’ fetches a premium rate compared to its commercial grain-fed equivalent.

This is where London’s latest food waste campaign, The Pig Idea, comes into play. The initiative seeks firstly to encourage the use of legally permissible food waste from retailers and manufacturers in non-ruminant livestock feed. Its second objective is to lift the ban on feeding catering waste to livestock. In an attempt to raise public awareness, whilst also proving the viability of feeding food waste to pigs, The Pig Idea team is rearing eight pigs in London’s Stepney City Farm on a diet of vegetable trimmings, brewer’s grains, whey and okara (a by-product of tofu production). The cost of rearing the pigs is reduced because the food businesses providing the feed, do so for free, whilst also, in turn, cutting their own waste disposal costs.

This system of feeding is an excellent model of sustainable food production. Food is never wasted, remaining instead in the food chain. Of course, a revived swill-feeding industry must be robustly regulated and monitored in order to mitigate the risks of disease. However, the potential benefits of such a system to farmers, food businesses, consumers and the environment are vast. In a world where global meat consumption is increasing alongside a growing population, sustainability in livestock production is of paramount importance. The inefficiency of rearing livestock on feed made from cereals and oilseeds grown in vast, fossil fuel hungry monocultures, is making our meat cost the earth. We should be reversing this unsustainable practice by letting pigs eat waste.

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