Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at the Pig Idea Feast. "Pigs can be a highly effective recycling system, with the potential to turn a massive problem of food waste into a delicious solution. It’s mad not to." Photo: Karolina Webb.
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Let them eat waste!
Edd Colbert / The Ecologist
22nd November 2013
Last night Edd Colbert hosted a massive knees-up in Trafalgar Square, to ceremonially devour eight pigs raised entirely on edible food waste - a delicious launch to a very original campaign. He spoke to The Ecologist about his ideas ...
We are calling on supermarkets and other food retailers to start diverting more food that is unfit for human consumption to the feeding of animals.
The Ecologist: So Edd - exactly what is this Pig Idea?
Edd Colbert: The Pig Idea aims to get food waste back on the menu for pigs. To kick it off we have reared eight rare breed pigs on a diet of food waste and by-products, raised outdoors at Stepney City Farm. And to kick the campaign off the pigs were served up last night at at a huge public feast last night in Trafalgar Square only 5 miles down the road - that's what I call local food!
So exactly what were these pigs fed on?
Their diet consisted of whey, brewer's grains, okara, which is a tofu by-product, and off cuts from a local vegetable supplier. So not only did we get these eight wonderful pigs, but they saved 21.5 tonnes of edible food waste from being thrown away - that's 2.7 tonnes a pig. All of this food can be fed completely legally to pigs as it is not catering waste, nor has it had any risk of having been in contact with any meat products. This should be an industry standard.
And where does the campaign go next?
We are calling on supermarkets and other food retailers to start diverting more food that is unfit for human consumption to the feeding of animals. Already some food that is unfit for human consumption is being diverted to the feeding of animals, yet there is a great deal more to be done.
What's the position now? Where does the food currently fed to pigs come from?
The first thing to realise is that livestock feed is an absolutely enormous global business that has massive impacts on the environment around the world. Currently 37% of the global harvest is fed to livestock, who in turn give back around a third of the calories they consume in meat, dairy products and eggs, resulting in a net loss of over a quarter of all the food we produce.
Almost all of the world's soya ends up in animal troughs, as does around two thirds of the maize we grow. Deforestation, biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions are all occurring as we continue to destroy vulnerable ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado grasslands to produce ever more livestock feed.
We are also using pesticides and fertilizers to grow this food. If we add these chemicals to the fuel needed for transport, we begin to realise that when we eat meat we're not just eating vast amounts of crops, we're also consuming gallons of oil. As we can see, the food miles associated with meat production extend beyond the ‘farm to fork' journey and in fact stretch around the world causing widespread damage along the way.
Now I remember when I was a boy, all the waste food from my school was sent off to the local pig farm, and that seemed like a completely normal and sensible thing to do. And right up into the 1950s it was completely normal for families to keep a pig in a sty at the bottom of the garden to be fattened up on food scraps. What happened - why did all that stop?
You're right, all of that has a long history in the UK and around the world. Actually pigs were domesticated thousand years ago precisely in order to clean up our scraps and leftovers, creating a virtuous cycle that kept food in the food chain.
What went wrong was that in 2001 the feeding of catering waste to pigs was hastily banned by the British government as a response to the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). Government vets concluded that the FMD outbreak originated on a farm that was illegally feeding its pigs unprocessed restaurant waste and in 2002 the ban was extended across the European Union.
Before the ban, catering waste, or swill, could be legally fed to pigs so long as it had been properly heat-treated to remove the risk of spreading harmful pathogens. Across the world this practice continues and in places such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States, industries have emerged to produce animal feed from food waste that has been properly screened and heat-treated, rendering it safe to give to pigs.
In Japan, for example, pork that has been reared on food waste is sold on the very shelves the food has come from as a premium eco-pork product! So it is recognised as being a premium product.
People are already aware of a range of food issues affecting meat - like that it's organic, local, cruelty-free, free-range, and so on. Where does the Pig idea this fit in all that?
EC: It is an absolutely essential part of that whole panoply of issues. Meat can tick box after box on welfare questions and so on, but if it's fed on soybeans from half way across the world that's still a huge problem. It's not just the pigs that have to be local, but the food they eat! And the best way to do that is to feed them the edible wastes that otherwise get thrown away - sent to landfill, compost or anaerobic digestion. Feeding pigs on those wastes is the 'added value' solution for everyone involved.
What are the main obstructions you need to overcome to get it all to happen?
The single biggest block is the EU ban on feeding catering waste to pigs. The ban should not be overturned entirely as there are genuine dangers of disease transmission and these need to be taken into account. What we need is for the EU to allow - and more than that to encourage - the establishment of a robustly monitored and secure 'eco-feed' industry, aimed at ensuring that food is kept in the food chain, filling pig bellies instead of bins!
And what about people who say we should reduce our impact by eating less meat, or not eating meat at all?
We all - or almost all - need to reduce the amount of meat we eat. But it's wrong to say that's the only way to reduce the impact of meat eating. To truly improve the sustainability of our livestock industry the most important step that needs to be taken is in the way we feed the animals.
Moreover by feeding our food wastes to pigs, we are not just producing high quality meat but we are also solving a massive waste problem that is costing both the public and the food industry a huge amount of money to deal with. We say, let them eat waste!
And Ed, last night's feast - how did it go? And what was the meat like?
It was brilliant! Thousands of people joined us and we all had a fantastic time - and on top of that we now have a group of dedicated supporters to help take the campaign forward.
As for the meat, well, everyone was tucking in with great gusto, but I can't actually tell you what it was like - I'm a dedicated long-term vegan! So it was all delicious winter vegetable tacos and guacamole for me.
Support the Pig Idea Campaign signing the pledge at www.thepigidea.org or following us on twitter @thepigidea.
Edd Colbert is the Campaign Coordinator for The Pig Idea, London's latest food waste campaign that aims to divert food waste to livestock feed, reducing our dependency on imported cereal crops. Whilst a dedicated vegan, he's also an advocate for sustainable, high welfare livestock farming. You can follow him @eddcolbert.
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