Henry Dimbleby on creating a new manifesto for food and farming

30 April 2020 by

The new National Food Strategy is arguably Henry Dimbleby's biggest challenge to date. The co-founder of Leon is working across government and with the public to map out a new revolutionary vision for the UK's beleaguered food and farming system. He speaks to Tom Vaughan

Henry Dimbleby has bitten off a lot. By agreeing to lead the new National Food Strategy – the first major review of the UK food system for 75 years – he has pledged to devise a post-Brexit blueprint that he hopes will redefine the future of farming, tackle the obesity epidemic and bolster our food security. And he's pledged to do it all by the start of 2021. For free.

Henry Dimbleby
Henry Dimbleby

The first question that has to be asked is: why? There's a slight pause. "Have you been talking to my wife?" he replies, before breaking into brief laughter. "To be asked to do this is a massive privilege. And I've got a set of skills that may be useful in solving it. We are hoping to create a blueprint that Western societies can use to tackle two of the biggest problems they face. That is pretty hard to turn down."

We are hoping to create a blueprint that Western societies can use to tackle two of the biggest problems they face

The implementation of the strategy was one of the last acts by Michael Gove as environment secretary. Dimbleby, co-founder of healthy-eating fast-food chain Leon and author of the government's 2013 School Food Plan, was an obvious choice to lead it. His brief: a field-to-fork look at how a post-Brexit Britain will deliver safe, healthy, affordable food regardless of income; plus an examination of the sustainability of supply and the impact of the climate crisis. In short: redefine a food supply system that evolved – imperfectly – to feed a swelling global population (see below).

It's certainly an ambitious scope. And, as Dimbleby volunteers: "There's obviously a not inconsiderable chance of failure." But when he begins listing the problems that needs fixing, broken down into health, farming and food security, it's clear why he is so desperate to get it right. "Already, in this country, the increase in our life expectancy has stalled. You're more likely to die of a non-communicable disease based on what you eat and your lifestyle than you are of a communicable disease.

"Travelling around the country, every farmer I've met is trying to improve their soils, and is trying to improve the biodiversity on their farm. We take for granted this period of food security that we've had since the second world war; but it is very, very recent and potentially fragile."

The stats he throws out are eye-opening. In 2017, an estimated 90,000 people died on average 14 years earlier than expected because of diet-related illnesses, and the years lost to ill health equate to a £54b loss to the economy.

Start at the beginning

In trying to tackle all of this, where does he even start? The past six months have been all about understanding the task in hand, he says. "We made a call for evidence and had thousands of pieces of evidence back. We've been going around the country visiting farms, abattoirs, retailers, food banks and food manufacturing plants. Then we've been engaging a group of great minds to pull all of that into one narrative about what the system looks like today."

In May the team had been due to publish their first report, until it was diverted to help with the coronavirus crisis. When the document can be released, it will set out a "diagnosis and vision, which sets out the economics and power dynamics that result in both the problems and the good outcomes in the system today." Then in September, the strategy's findings and the dilemmas inherent to fixing the system will be put before a 100-strong citizen assembly, drawn from a demographically diverse slice of the population.

With so many great minds on the team, why is it falling to Joe Average to make the tough decisions? "If you think about where you're trying to get to, the ways in which you can get there will be dependent on what citizens value. What value do they place on growing food in this country? What value do they place on animal welfare standards? What value they place on the freedom of companies to provide them with whatever they want, versus the value they place on the government acting to curtail that freedom in some ways for the good of public health.

"All of those things are values-based and, therefore, it would be wrong of me to say, ‘here is the answer', because that would be me imposing my values on citizens."

Then, finally, the plan is to publish a white paper on the findings in 2021.

Making real change

Healthy eating, sustainable farming: these are all issues that various government departments have been battling with for the last decade or so. What makes the National Food Strategy different?

"In short, two things," Dimbleby explains. "One is it is cross-government. For example, when you look at health, you often find that Public Health England, the NHS, and BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] are not entirely aligned. Public Health England wants a stronger regulatory approach, BEIS wants a more liberal approach because it doesn't want to damage the economy. The Department for International Trade has a different approach to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). My job is to unpick those tensions. And the other thing that makes it different is really deep citizen engagement, trying to create change, rather than just writing a report."

A call for evidence has seen every major player – from Sustain to the British Dietetic Association to the Food Ethics Council – send in submissions outlining their ideas for a future of British food.

In among these are some wildly conflicting suggestions. On the one hand, there is the Vegetarian Society advocating tobacco-style regulations on the advertisement of meat and fish, and on the other, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation championing game meat as an under-utilised, sustainable food source. Does he have to accept that he's not going to make everyone happy?

"Clearly if you have, say, someone who believes that eating meat is morally wrong, and on the other side you have a farmer who believes that introducing, say, lamb into an arable rotation is the way to improve their soil, both of those people can't be fully happy at the same time. It's a logical impossibility.

"However, there is a massive difference between that farmer who is using sheep to improve their soil and someone who is deforesting rainforest. And when you unpick these arguments, you find there's much more common ground than people think."

The hospitality angle

So far, the National Food Strategy has talked a lot about farmers, supermarkets and retailers, but not much about restaurants. With Dimbleby's own background co-founding Leon, he's better placed than most government ministers to grasp how the hospitality industry could fit into all of this. Do they have a role to play?

"People take a lot of their cultural cues from restaurants and they can play a role in informing public opinion," he explains. "I remember when I was a chef in a Michelin-starred kitchen and someone ordered a vegetarian meal, the French sous chef would say, ‘eurgh, vegetarian!'. But detoxifying those attitudes and helping people change their diets, I think, is a massive role for restaurants to play."

Helping people change their diet is a massive role for higher-end restaurants to play

Further into the casual and fast-food sector, I put it to him that there are only two ways to make menus healthier: voluntary self-regulation or government regulation. Which one does he favour moving forward? "My guess is it'll be a combination of those two," he replies.

"Roger Whiteside [chief executive of Greggs] is on my advisory panel and he's very thoughtful about this. He'll say: ‘I'm the number one sausage roll seller in the country, and if people eat too many sausage rolls, it's not good for them. But if I change a sausage roll so it's not a sausage roll, my business goes bust.'

"He's taken out 20% of sugar, he's put salads in every Greggs, but if he does too much, the business will just go elsewhere. So, maybe you do need regulation, because at least it creates a level playing field."

Outside the box

As a demonstration of the scope of ideas and influences that Dimbleby is absorbing, he jumps to Silicon Valley to give an example of what the future of the food industry could look like. "There is a lot of talk among games manu- facturers about not making games that are too addictive to children, but it's almost impossible to define what that is in a regulatory way."

The solution, he explains: a growing foundation where programmers and software engineers sign up to a form of Hippocratic oath not to make games too addictive. "A lot of these software engineers are young and they have quite a high social conscience.

"I hope that you might get a similar kind of pressure in the food sector as well; people saying: ‘You can't take a sweet where the first three ingredients are sugar and then market it to kids as ‘containing natural fruit juice and no added colouring'.'"

It's clear that he's not planning on leaving any stone unturned in devising a food future, one that he ambitiously believes every Western society might conceivably be able to copy. In the next 12 months, we'll have an idea of what that vision is. Does the incredible ambition of the strategy daunt him?

"In those dark hours before the dawn, I do sometimes worry that the harms the system does are so intricately entwined that trying to change it without unintended consequences is very difficult," he replies, before adding: "But there aren't massive mathematical or scientific hurdles. If we farmed in a different way, we could still feed the world and eat in a way that makes us healthy. The question is: how do we get businesses and society and farmers working together to make that change?

"Don't get me wrong, that is an enormous challenge. But the fact that the will is there and that – structurally – it's possible, that gives me hope."

If we farmed in a different way, we could still feed the world and eat in a way that makes us healthy

What needs fixing? A potted history of the 20th-century food system, by Henry Dimbleby

In 1945, at the end of the second world war, humanity faced an even greater existential threat. The global population had more than doubled over the last 150 years and scientists were predicting that, within the next 100 years, there would be nine billion people on the planet. How on earth were we to feed them all? Mass starvation seemed inevitable.

But no one had reckoned on botanist Norman Borlaug. He had grown up on a small farm in Iowa during the Great Depression. He moved to Mexico in 1944 hoping to develop more productive strains of wheat and spent his days in the heat-blasted fields, painstakingly crossbreeding wheat plants.

His efforts paid off. When Borlaug arrived in Mexico, the country's wheat yields were so low that it imported 60% of the wheat it consumed. By 1956 – thanks to his high-yielding, short-stemmed, rust-resistant wheat – Mexico was self-sufficient. This success was repeated in India and Pakistan. Then across the world. It became known as the Green Revolution.

By adopting Borlaug's methods, farmers saved billions of people from starvation. But as so often happens, the solution to one problem creates others. As the amount of food available per person increased – and companies found increasingly innovative ways to process, package, and market this surplus – so we have got heavier.

This shouldn't surprise us. Humans evolved in a world where food was scarce. We evolved a palate that finds calorie-rich food almost irresistible. The health ramifications have been coming towards us for 70 years. Today, sufficiently large numbers of us are overweight enough to cause serious health problems and a strain on our NHS.

We also now know something that Borlaug could not. Every stage of the farming process exacerbates the carbon crisis; from the forests cleared to plant crops to the methane produced by rice paddies and livestock. In total, the food system is responsible for an estimated 20%-30% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

So, there's a simple story. We focused on an existential risk – growing enough food so we didn't starve – and we largely solved that problem. But as we increased the amount of food available to eat, we ate more and got heavier. And as we got heavier, we got sick.

The reason I see this as a story of hope is that it shows that if we know what we want of the system, we can make it deliver. If we can align behind a common vision, we can pivot this system to one that restores and enhances our environment, sequesters carbon and stops making us sick.

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