The businessman Henry Dimbleby, who co-founded the Leon restaurant chain and led a review of school food, has taken the opportunity given to him two years ago by the then environment secretary, Michael Gove, and run with it. The national food strategy published on Thursday is a genuinely bold attempt to solve a hard problem: how to stop ruining our nation’s health with junk food at the same time as cutting greenhouse gas emissions from food production. Taking one of its first quotations from the biologist Edward O Wilson, the report leaps with both feet into complex questions about human societies, agriculture and ecosystems pushed to the brink of disaster.
The strategy draws on some citizens’ assembly-type research and interviews with people in all parts of the food system, as well as existing knowledge. It digests insights from the team behind the landmark Limits to Growth report from half a century ago, and recent work on the value of nature, commissioned by the Treasury, from the economist Partha Dasgupta.
But it never loses sight of the fact that the point is people. While the project’s remit did not extend to a consideration of the role of shrinking benefits in perpetuating what it calls the “junk food cycle”, Mr Dimbleby makes plain that he knows that poverty causes obesity.
The recommendation to extend free school meals to all children from households with an income below GBP20,000, and expand the Healthy Start voucher programme, are straightforward and humane public policy measures that any politician should be embarrassed to oppose. The insight gleaned from public sessions that a meat tax is politically impossible is delivered calmly; meat-eating will have to be reduced in other ways.
Some of the data, though shocking, is familiar. Three in 10 British adults over 45 are obese. We eat five times more crisps than in 1972, and vastly more ultra-processed foods than many of our European neighbours (50% of all food, compared with 13% in Italy). The pandemic has exacerbated many of these trends, for example increasing consumption of takeaways. Food inequalities are enormous, with children in the most deprived areas three times as likely as other children to have tooth decay at age five.
The facts about the environmental damage caused by food production are also not new, although since there has been no progress in reducing greenhouse emissions from farming in a decade, they urgently need restating. Around 20% of the UK’s emissions come from food; when imports are added, the total is a great deal more. Where Mr Dimbleby and his team break new ground is in synthesising all this information into a manifesto for change. The health of the population and the planet, they argue, must be viewed as a whole, with trade policy part of the picture too.
Naturally enough, attention has focused on Mr Dimbleby’s most eye-catching idea: a new sugar and salt tax, modelled on the soft drinks levy and estimated to be worth around GBP3bn a year. That the prime minister appeared to dismiss this proposal straight away would be disappointing if there were any reason to expect more.
But the truth is that the body of work represented by this strategy, with its 14 thoughtful recommendations, is too good for Boris Johnson’s government. That the prime minister chose to give his own poorly worked-out “levelling up” speech on a day that he could have spent responding in a constructive way to two years of research on food policy is sadly not surprising. Other policymakers will hopefully be more receptive. Mr Dimbleby believes that at least some industry bosses are keen for ministers to take the lead. The door to a healthier future is open.