Sustainable eating: why we need to be going the whole hog

Independent, May 2017

From nose to tail, root to shoot and beak to claw, Emma Henderson looks at the wasteless food movements in restaurants striving to throw away as little as possible of the copious amounts of animals and plants we grow solely for consumption

Sustainability is the buzzword of the moment. It’s quite literally on the lips of conscious consumers who want to know where their food has come from, how and where it lived and how it came to be on their plates.

Being sustainable is about reducing waste, and one of the most effective ways of doing this is by using as much of the animal or vegetable as possible. But this isn’t a new concept. Far from it. It’s a return to the post-war no-waste attitude where every part of the animal was used, preserved and little was thrown away – just like Native Americans lived off the Buffalo, from the brains to their hides. Instead, decades of convenience have changed perceptions, where people are more used to seeing vegetables wrapped in plastic than in the ground.

Aside from agriculture, sustainability has firmly moved into the food industry where wining the Sustainable Restaurant Award replaces the prestigious Michelin star, catapulting it to be on par with taste and aesthetics of dishes. But there is still a long way to go as an estimated one in every six meals ends up in the bin in the UK, and 30 per cent of hospitality waste is from customer’s plates, according to Defra’s latest figures from last month.

Tristram Stuart, food waste activist and founder of Feedback, a food waste organisation, calls food waste a global scandal – and even 15 years ago he lived for months on food taken from bins in north west London’s affluent Primrose Hill known for its organic food shops.

Feedback wants to see food business halve their food waste by 2030, in line with the UN global goal. Carina Millstone, Feedback’s executive director, says: “Eating meat is one of the biggest impacts human beings have on the planet, and when we rear an animal for food we should at least eat the whole thing.”

As consumers, we need to be more conscious of our actions instead of being all-consuming and numb to the damage waste causes. But a large part of it is down to fashions and trends, when at some point we began turning our noses up at using all types of offal, from kidney to tongue. But why, when we still eat sausages made with intestines, pate and caviar which all come under the innards umbrella.

A cut above the rest

An estimated billion animals are reared for slaughter each year in the UK, according to the Viva charity. And if we are raising these animals for one sole purpose, we should use them as effectively as possible. “Considering the extraordinary amount of energy, resource and time that goes into getting our food from the farm to the fork – it’s shocking to think just how much is wasted. The nose-to-tail eating movement is an important one, reminding us all of the high value that should be placed on the food we rear and grow,” says food supply organisation FareShare chief executive Lindsay Boswell.

The forefather of bringing sustainability back on to our radar is Fergus Henderson, who coined nose-to-tail eating with his restaurant St John, which opened in 1994, where he used long forgotten offal cuts such as brain, snouts and bone barrow. Shane Holland, executive chairman of the Slow Food organisation, says the “fifth quarter” cuts (the things we often throw away) are rightfully being celebrated again. “These cuts are an ethical and flavoursome choice, and are very often the tastiest.”

But if you’re not quite sold on it, think back to only a few years ago to the rise of pork belly. What was once a discarded cut for its layers of fat, has soared in price thanks to the likes of Jamie Oliver. Now it’s a regular feature in cookbooks and TV shows which was reflected in the soaring price.

His ethos has since made way for others, such as root to shoot and lately, beak to claw. Chicken is the most wasted meat in the UK and that’s because breast is one of the most common cuts used and the rest is largely forgotten about will most poultry. At Duck and Waffle Local, head chef Dan Doherty’s menu has duck in almost every dish, using the likes of long lost cuts including gizzards and necks, and soon there are plans to even introduce heart, tongue and feet. He’s taken it away from its shackles of dishes such as duck a l’orange and instead modernised it into a duck burger, making it more accessible and imaginative.

They’ve set themselves apart from the vast majority of the rest of the industry, as Dan describes it: “We’ve not tied ourselves to a type of cuisine, but an ingredient and we can really make the most of it.”

After chicken and pork, beef is the third most wasted meat where £260m worth of the stuff, raw and cooked, is chucked annually. Darren Broom, chef of Nancarrow near Truro in Cornwall, is planning a weekend of feasting in October to feed 1,000 people from a single bullock reared on their organic farm, in a bid to show how beef can be consumed sustainably.

“Although a whole leg of beef, whole pig or lamb on the fire looks impressive, we also work with the lesser-known cuts and some are more challenging in their appeal than others. For example, offal served as part of a small bite or canapé, makes it more approachable,” says Steve Chamberlain, partner at Nancarrow.

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