Henry Dimbleby: a man with a plan

The Leon co-founder and author of the School Food Plan has been tasked with leading the development of England’s first National Food Strategy in 75 years. He talks to Nick Hughes about why the time is right for a rewiring of the food system, and why foodservice has a key role to play.

NH: Given the context of Brexit, and the impact that any scenario under which we leave the EU is going to have on food supply chains and the policies and standards that govern them, do you see this as a unique opportunity to reshape the food system? And if so, do you feel the pressure of shouldering that responsibility?

HD: What is in my favour is that these issues even 10 years ago were viewed by some as the kinds of things that people who had a secret agenda to pull down the capitalist system worried about, or liberal-minded people who didn’t want to worry about hard things like the economy were concerned with. We’re now in the position where that’s no longer the case. Everyone, or almost everyone, now realises that the issue of how our food chain impacts our health and the environment is one of the biggest issues developed countries face and there is really serious intent by the government to go about [reshaping the system]. In my terms of reference the government said these are decisions they could no longer shirk, so there is a real understanding that we need to do something about it, which is very exciting. I think my work is less about Brexit and more about the fact that there is now a recognition that something needs to be done and people are working on this across the globe: in the OECD, in the UN, in individual countries, but the work our government is doing is probably at the forefront, in terms of the breadth and scope of that mission, that any government in the developed world is doing. Clearly, that’s a huge responsibility, but it’s exciting too.

A common complaint from people working within both the food industry and civil society is about the lack of joined-up thinking in government on food policy. What in your mind have been the historical barriers to the kind of systemic, cross-governmental thinking needed to conceive and deliver a National Food Strategy and do you think there is a genuine desire now to break these down?

I don’t think it’s rocket science to learn that our government is organised by departments run by secretaries of state with their own agendas and very specific objectives. Across almost any area where the output requires multiple actions across government departments, that’s been tricky. In this area you have DFID looking at development and economic growth abroad, you’ve got BEIS working on the industrial strategy, you’ve got trade, education, DEFRA working on food – it’s not surprising that things have been difficult to broker between these multiple objectives. What’s exciting here is the government has clearly specified that my role is to bring together the work happening in DEFRA on the Environment Bill and the Fisheries Bill, the work done in the Cabinet Office on the obesity plan, and the food sector strategy within BEIS, so there is explicit recognition within the terms of reference that this is something that needs to be done across government departments. The structural tensions in the system will remain – I don’t think it’s ever possible to remove those – but the fact it has been recognised that this work has to be done across departments is exciting.

You’ve already met with a wide range of organisations including foodservice operators such as Compass Group and Greggs. Do you feel like you’ve had good engagement with the foodservice sector to date?

Yes. My background is in the foodservice sector so I know it pretty well. I think there’s an understanding that things aren’t right and a desire to make things better, and I’m really buoyed by the amount of energy and engagement I’ve had from the sector because these are not areas where the government can just wave a magic wand and make things happen – you can’t send in the army to improve the food served across the nation. A lot of this will have to be done within those businesses by leaders who decide that what we’re doing isn’t good enough and we need to improve. I sense there’s a real appetite for that. It’s not going to be easy. From a cultural and evolutionary perspective people like eating stuff that is high in energy and high in fat. The majority of sales in the sector are from those types of food and it’s going to be a real challenge to turn that around, but I think it’s a challenge the sector wants to embrace. You need leaders. Nobody wants to be responsible for some of the terrible health outcomes we’re getting at the moment. If we can maintain the energy I think we can do it.

At this stage are you able to draw out any key themes from what foodservice businesses have been telling you?

I know from my own business that the real challenge is how do you help your customers lead the life they want to lead? It’s difficult and people are grappling with it in many different ways, but if every company started serving just vegetables or healthy food you’d get dislocation within those businesses. So how do we move fast but also keep our customers with us? I think that’s the challenge everyone from the biggest supermarkets to those working in the public sector in schools and hospitals is grappling with.

This is a sector where the projected growth trajectory is strong over the next five to 10 years. Will there be pinch points? Let’s take, for example, packaging – consumers are increasingly looking for convenience from food, and the out-of-home sector has benefitted from that, but largely to-date by ramping up the volume of single-use packaging. How do you see your food strategy addressing some of those tensions between market forces on the one hand and the need to reduce environmental impact on the other?

That’s the million-dollar question. Can you maintain that growth while doing so in a way that has a better impact on the environment and people’s health? No-one has yet provided me with any strong argument that it’s impossible to maintain economic growth while tackling those issues, but that is central to the problem that we are setting out to try and resolve. I don’t know the answer yet.

I know you’re keen to open the discussion up beyond the usual suspects who give their thoughts on policy matters. Foodservice is a hugely fragmented industry. It’s not like retail where if you capture the views of the 10 largest chains you’ve covered pretty much the entire market. What would you say to the thousands of people running small, independent cafes, restaurants and catering businesses, who might think that a National Food Strategy has nothing to do with them?

The first thing is we’d love to hear from them. We have a call for evidence and would love to hear about what’s working well because my experience of going around the country is that there are all sorts of things people are doing to improve the food they serve to reduce the impact on the environment and health and to engage their communities. If we can understand those and they can be shared then we’d love to hear from those people. Secondly, in terms of Leon and our approach to this, when we started Leon the idea was to do food that you could eat that made you well but was also delicious and convenient – the environmental side wasn’t a main focus. And then it became clear to us that people assumed we were doing all kinds of things on sustainability that we weren’t. It is unbelievably difficult when you are trying to run a small business, which we were in those days, to focus on all of that stuff as well. It’s hard enough just paying the bills at the end of the month. And I found in that area there are lots of people that can help (I helped set up the Sustainable Restaurant Association), you don’t have to work it all out yourself. There are not-for-profits that will hold your hand and lead you through it, so I would say on a personal level those kinds of things have been really helpful to us in the past.

Food is such an emotive subject; people have a wide range of views on it, and on certain issues those differences can boil over into some quite fervent debates. The question of whether we need to eat less meat is quite a good example of that, where some of the conversations have been quite vitriolic…

Horrible, really horrible. Adam Smith said something about how ‘virtue is more to be feared than vice’ because if you feel you’re virtuous you don’t reflect on your actions. On Twitter, for example, the meat and vegan debate has been going on in my mentions and the way that they talk to each other is deeply sad, and I think it’s because people put themselves in a position of virtue and they dehumanise their opposition. These are complicated issues and we are not going to resolve them just by standing on a hill and defining that is the hill you’re going to die on and anyone else you’re going to treat as evil. Part of the way we are going to go about this process is to try and be a little more open, inclusive and humane and to try and tease out these arguments in a less vitriolic way. Otherwise what happens is you just get a lot of heat and nothing changes.

And from your conversations to-date do you feel like there is a sensible middle ground – a shared vision and narrative for food around which most stakeholders can broadly coalesce, acknowledging that there will always be people at both extremes?

I think you can definitely respect other people’s values. Animal sentience, for example – if you look at how quickly that’s moving in terms of societies and their desire to engage on the rights of animals and how much they might suffer, that is moving very quickly and therefore I think you have to acknowledge that people are at different places on that journey, and do that without necessarily saying this person is good and this person is evil. It’s about recognising that we value different things whilst arguing fervently for our position. I do think there are enough common themes, such as a real desire to reduce the impact [of food] on biodiversity, to treat animals better, to improve our soils, to reduce the misery and suffering that comes from food-related disease. These are common themes around which we can coalesce for a vision for a future even though by definition it’s going to be a combined vision and there are going to be things within it that not everyone agrees on.

On this question of diet and what to eat, governments have historically been nervous about telling people what to eat, and certainly within this country politicians tend not to feel it is their place necessarily. Without wanting to pre-empt your conclusions, if you find the evidence sufficiently compelling for a diet that is both healthy and sustainable are you prepared to enter into that territory and recommend to the government that this is the advice it needs to give to people?

Yes, but in a slightly different way. I think that telling people, on the whole, isn’t a good way of getting them to do something, even people over whom you have a great deal of control, such as your children. So I think the question of what role the government has to play in helping us make the right choices around our diet and how far we want the government to be involved in our lives in that way is a fundamental question about values and about what we care about, and the degree to which we want to be free to do what we want or to get help from the government to help us eat the right things. And there is also an obligation both ways; in a world in which we expect a lot of the state to make resources available, to make us better, to treat us fairly, there’s clearly a complicated relationship. The way in which we are going to address this is to have citizens’ assemblies. We are going to bring together groups of people, demographically representative of the population, to whom we are going to be presenting the evidence on what works, what doesn’t work, having experts from both sides of the argument talk to them, and then asking them for their recommendations in those areas, so that it’s not just me saying this is what we should do, or the government telling people what to eat, it is a discussion that is bringing together the evidence, the people and the government to come up with a view about what is the right way to go at the moment.

This idea of food citizenship – that people need to view themselves not just as consumers but as citizens with a stake in the food system – seems to be getting traction at the moment. Would you like it if one of the outcomes from the review is that people take a more participatory role in the food system and don’t just act as passive consumers?

We live in a country where what we do affects what others do and we together pay taxes for mutual services. If we view ourselves as active participants in that system with desires and obligations it will inevitably make it easier to make change than if we see ourselves as passive consumers in the system because that doesn’t reflect the truth that by our actions we change the system.

You were appointed by a former secretary of state under a previous administration. Have you had assurances that the current administration remains committed to developing and implementing a National Food Strategy? [The government has pledged to follow Dimbleby’s review by publishing a multi-disciplinary National Food Strategy in the form of a white paper.

Yes, absolutely. Michael Gove who commissioned it is now in the Cabinet Office and the new [DEFRA] secretary of state has given it her backing. We’ve also got support from Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, so there’s certainly recognition that this work needs to be done. I can’t see anyone just stopping it.

Because cross-party support will be crucial….

Yes, this is not a party-political thing. Who knows what government will be in place this year, let alone in 10 years’ time. This is about creating something that is going to last for many years and will set a new direction for our food system. That is not a party-political activity.

And are you confident you can do that and this document won’t end up gathering dust in the archives along with all the other policy papers?

I’ve spoken to the authors of those documents, everyone from Lord Curry [Future of Food and Farming, 2002] to Andrew Jarvis [Food Matters, 2008]. I’m taking a sabbatical for a year to do this and clearly we’re going to do everything we can to ensure this isn’t something that just gets a fanfare for a year and then dies a death. Part of the way we’re going about it is very explicitly thinking about how do we make sure this will have a lasting impact? Obviously, we have to be successful, but I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think it was possible.

To contribute to the call for evidence by 25 October visit www.nationalfoodstrategy.org

1 Response

  1. I wouldn’t presume to know how far the brief extends and Henry knows his way around our industry as opposed to others that may have tackled this in the past without disrespect to them.
    There are no quick fixes here.
    The parents of tomorrow need to be engaged to understand how food shapes everything we are and that it should not be cheap – value for money yes but cheap no.
    I despair at some current eating ‘out’, ‘in’ and delivery trends that are skewing quality in favour of cost, portion size and eventually choice.
    The supermarkets have got to play their part in terms of respecting suppliers, their customers and then their shareholders.
    Please engage with organisations such as LACA, HCA and others who can engage with consumers in ways that others cannot.
    Good luck with this vital work.
    Steve Loughton

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