Henry Dimbleby on the future of food in the UK

02 April 2024, 10:50 AM
  • As we continue to delve into the world of sustainability at Speciality Food, we speak to Henry Dimbleby MBE on the state of British farming, food security, public health and more
Henry Dimbleby on the future of food in the UK

Henry Dimbleby is a busy guy. Fresh from writing 2023’s Ravenous – a timely book reflecting on how we can get both the planet, and ourselves, into shape – he has recently launched venture capital firm, Bramble Partners, supporting businesses that improve food security, have a positive impact on health and nutrition, or that break new ground in agriculture.

These are all areas Henry has found himself hugely invested in over the past few years – and a large part of what drives him forward. The curiosity and keenness to identify the ‘big issues’, with the resolve to not just sit back and complain, but actually do something about them.

This tenacity, and problem-solving nature, is part of the reason Henry was asked to write the National Food Strategy in 2020, and its follow up in 2021 – an engaging, jargon-free, absorbing book of recommendations for government, that honed in on farming, UPFs, food security, and our public health crisis. Although there is a lot of doom and gloom to pick through, particularly when it comes to revitalising the health of the nation, Henry says overall there is a lot to be positive about, with changes afoot that could improve British food production for the better.

A course for Henry’s path was set during his time at Leon – though it was, he says, entirely accidental. “It [Leon] was a bit of a selfish pursuit in that it was about how you can eat fast food that tastes good and does you good,” he says. “But because of the way that we spoke, people assumed we were doing all sorts of things we weren’t doing. They assumed we were organic, and then we felt we had an obligation to either live up to that, or explain we weren’t doing that. So we had to train our staff to tell people, if they said ‘is it organic?’, to say ‘no’.”

At the same time, Mark Sainsbury of London restaurant Moro, approached Henry about the “absolute nightmare” of sustainability in the industry, and with a vision to form a group (The Sustainable Restaurant Association).

“The idea,” explains Henry, “was to take the burden away from you, as a restaurateur, trying to keep your restaurant open while doing everything else. We would just tell you ‘you need to do this, and this’.”

Later, Henry would be asked by government to devise the School Food Plan. “And off the back of that I was asked to do the National Food Strategy almost 10 years later. It was at the time when we’d just come out of the EU. And it was about how we create a food system that produces enough food, and sequesters carbon, and is secure.” It was during the two-year process producing the strategy that Henry really got “under the bonnet. And I began to feel a much stronger need to explain what’s going on to the wider world. It dawned on me,” he says, “when you looked at how destructive the food system was to health and the environment, that no one really knew about it. And we had a COP at Glasgow which was meant to be about biodiversity, and food wasn’t mentioned. I just thought, ‘why is no one talking about this?’ It’s central to two of the most critical issues facing society. You begin to feel a bit insane. Is it me, or them?”

A big leap that’s taken place in recent history, which Henry says can only be for the good, is growing, mainstream interest, particularly in food security and sustainability. “You look out and see the fields are underwater. When it’s outside your window you cannot avoid it and I think that is now really coming home to people. In a way, the fact it’s now so obvious makes me optimistic, weirdly. You can’t ignore it anymore.”

The most urgent matters for the UK right now, he says, are health and the environment. “We have 2.8 million people out of work, and they’re predominantly out of work due to musculoskeletal problems, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and mental health. Three of those are directly related to food, and one of them is exacerbated by it. If we don’t get this right, it’s going to make us both poor and sick. It’s a disaster, and we have the ability to fix that.”

HFSS (high fat, salt and sugar) regulations are one of just a handful of recommendations the government has enacted so far from Henry’s report, alongside Healthy Start, and Community Eatwell, with a programme following the Community Eatwell guidelines in London finding that children previously achieving 5% of their five a day, were getting up to 64% of their recommended intake. A major piece of feedback from the scheme was parents saying they felt they could have a fruit bowl at home, without it feeling like a waste of money. 

Henry admits more needs to be done on the health front. “Not only do we need to increase these kinds of schemes and trial them more broadly, but we need to increase the free school meal threshold, which is outrageously low.”

When it comes to the environment, Henry says we face a global disaster, but that green shoots of hope are peeping through. However, we cannot rest on our laurels and assume that just because we’re making the right noise and looking to do the right thing on home turf, other countries are following suit. It’s down to the UK to show producers and policymakers worldwide what good looks like.

“We could do farming really well in this country and still climate change can carry on because we are a small part of the picture,” Henry explains. “Even if we got it right here, gradually the UK could sink underwater. I think our role in this this is exciting. Yes, to fix our biodiversity problems, but more it’s to show that it is possible.”

Already, Henry says, others are beginning to follow where the UK leads, and the pattern of recent farmers’ protests has been telling. “England and Scotland are two of the countries who haven’t really had farmers’ protests, and Scotland hasn’t done a lot of the changes yet. But England has done a lot of change, and politically the ups and downs have been handled pretty well. Whereas if you look at protests in Wales and across Europe, I think a lot of them are explained by well-meaning but bad policy. I think that, actually, we are showing a way policy can be done to bring farmers with you.”

Does he believe there are enough people ‘at the top’ across parties in government to make continued, meaningful changes to farming and the environment?

The answer is a strong ‘yes’. “When Truss did the Australia trade deal and was then Prime Minister you saw how fragile the coalition was, and what a good job Gove and then Eustice had been doing. Then there was quite a big wobble, and now Steve Barclay is getting the balance right, and there’s been a settling down of things. Whoever gets in next, I think fundamentally there is now a consensus on what needs to be done. I’m very optimistic on the environmental side, and pessimistic on the health side.”

Henry does believe that we can rebalance the books on food security in Britain, but adds it has to be approached in the right way. Specific quotas could have a negative impact, while aiming for around 60% of food to be produced in the UK seems the most sustainable solution.

“If we look back in history, 100% of food was produced here. With the repeal of the Corn Laws this went down as we produced more cloth and wool, and sold garments, buying our food from Canada and South America and other places.

“After the war it went up again, and then at the beginning of the Common Agricultural Policy it went up too much. We need to have a balance of our own production and import routes, so if we have a bad harvest we can still import stuff from elsewhere. I think it’s important to make sure we do continue to produce food, while keeping a close eye on what’s happening in production. One thing we are more insecure on is fruit and veg, but I think that is something we can lean into a bit more,” Henry says. 

A regenerative and biodiverse solution is needed to improve the growth of these crops in the UK, and already plenty is underway as more farmers adopt regenerative techniques. Henry sees the future as being the ‘Three Compartment Model’ laid out in the National Food Strategy, saying that getting farming right relies on a simultaneous equation that not only produces enough food, but sequesters carbon and restores nature.

This involves freeing up pockets of land for re-wilding, while managing highly productive farming alongside lower-yield farming using regenerative measures. We may still have mono-cropping, Henry says, adding that to mitigate environmental concerns, those farms growing single crops might “have bigger borders, or encourage natural pest suppression. Fundamentally the role of environment land management schemes is to incentivise farmers so they can make the right decisions.”

It is important, Henry adds, to continue to support and champion British farmers – particularly as ‘buying British’ is something that resonates with the buying public.

He recalls a conversation with former Sainsbury’s CEO, Justin King. “He said if you look at consumers and sustainability labelling it really doesn’t work. They’ve got so much going on in their lives that it has marginal impact on their shopping decisions. It’s all about quality and price.” The label that really does ‘stick’, is the British flag. If a product carries a Union Jack, King advised Henry, “people are more likely to buy it.” Henry’s own work with focus groups found that “farmers are among the most trusted people in our society. People really trust farmers, even though over 50% of us have never met a farmer. We still have a sense of ourselves as a food growing nation. I think there is something quite fundamentally rooted in our sense of identity as British people of being a farming nation.”

Retailers have a huge role to play in supporting, and promoting British-grown food, ensuring it remains an important part of what goes on the nation’s plates. Henry says many of the retail giants are now plotting out their Scope 3 emissions to 2050, but they need to consider the power of British produce and biodiversity alongside their pursuit of Net Zero. “I think they have quite a lot of freedom of movement, in that they can do plenty to support farmers,” he explains. “And they can source better. I’m fundamentally quite pessimistic about any public-owned company doing anything unilaterally that doesn’t make a dent in profits – that’s why we need policy and regulation.” Change would “take more effort”, he adds, but could be achieved without hugely impacting retailers’ bottom line.

On the whole, Henry says he feels good things are happening, and they need to be embraced. “One of the reasons I set up Bramble Partners is because I think there is a lot going on. Yes on health, but particularly on environmental solutions and food security.”

There are some “amazing” ideas being trialled that need capital to make them happen on scale. “Whether that’s regenerative farming, and someone like Wildfarmed thinking about how they can upscale, or whether that is on the food security side, thinking about how to, in countries like Egypt, produce food without the soil to do it, or in the UK how can you have seeds and plants protected against volatility. I’m most optimistic about the fact there is recognition of the problems we face, and a lot of people are doing quite a lot of creative stuff to prove it.”

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