IEMA CEO Sarah Mukherjee MBE talks to food campaigner Henry Dimbleby MBE about improving the UK’s health, tackling poverty, shaping government policy and transforming agriculture
As a former business consultant, restaurateur, cookery writer and government adviser, there are few who understand the workings of the UK’s food system as well as Henry Dimbleby.
The co-founder of Leon Restaurants was instrumental in the government’s decision to provide infants with free school lunches and to include practical cooking and nutrition in the national curriculum.
He also led the UK’s National Food Strategy in 2020, proposing various actions to help disadvantaged children and promote higher environmental and animal welfare standards.
“Diet-related disease is putting an intolerable strain on our nation’s health and finances,” he explains in the report’s foreword. “For our own health, and that of our planet, we must act now.”
Why did you take the career path that you did?
It’s been a bit of a random walk, but always towards something that interested me. At a party at university, I happened to meet Bruno Loubet – an amazing French chef, who had a Michelin star at the Four Seasons, Inn on the Park. As a joke, I asked what I should do if I wanted to be a cook, and he said “Why don’t you come and cook for me?”.
So, I used to go up to London on a bus and cook for him while I was doing my finals. I was studying physics and philosophy at Oxford, but I wasn’t someone like Boris Johnson with massive self-confidence. My father had a small family newspaper business in south-west London, so I became a gossip columnist at The Daily Telegraph. Later, having always loved food, I started Leon.
There have been two transitions in my life – the first was when people stopped asking if I was David Dimbleby’s son and started asking if I was cookery writer Josceline Dimbleby’s son. Then came a point recently when people just stopped asking me who my parents are.
Tell us some more about why you started Leon.
Again, it was accidental and followed my interests. John Vincent and I set up Leon as a selfish endeavour – we couldn’t get food on the go that didn’t make us fall asleep and wasn’t disgusting. Because of the way we talked, the tone of voice we used at Leon, people assumed we were organic, which we weren’t. They assumed we were high animal welfare, which we hadn’t really thought about. So, we felt a responsibility to think more about what we were and weren’t doing.
How did you get involved in influencing government policy?
I met Michael Gove, then education secretary, at someone’s house, and we spent a long time talking about school food, because he was being smashed over the head about it by chef Jamie Oliver. He got in touch a week later and asked if I would do an independent review of UK school meals.
Some good things came from it – universal free school meals for infants happened, some decent stuff on food in the curriculum, and we set up the charity Chefs in Schools. After we left the EU’s common agricultural policy, there was a desire to create a farming system that was more environmentally friendly and net zero, so Defra asked me to do another review, the National Food Strategy.
It was an amazing set of people you got together, which says a lot about your convening power. However, there was always a danger that it would sound like preachy, upper-class people wagging their fingers, telling people to eat properly. How did you deal with that?
Funnily enough, it’s only ever educated, rich people who have occasionally asked me why an Eton and Oxford-educated whatever should be able to tell people what to eat. We visited people all over the country, and they were fed up with the way the food system works. You have to acknowledge that poverty in this country has been partially solved with cheap, unsustainable food.
We have the cheapest food, other than America, in the world, and a lot of that food is harmful to the environment – and our health. People have to realise it’s possible to create a better diet for the majority of the people that doesn’t do those things. If we don’t, our food literally isn’t sustainable. It is the biggest cause of biodiversity collapse, the biggest cause of freshwater stress, freshwater pollution and deforestation, and the second-biggest cause of climate change. You have to say that we cannot carry on that way, and then explain what the transition looks like.
Everybody in the food industry said what a well-researched piece of work it was, yet only 20% of what you suggested has actually come to fruition. How frustrating was that?
The government is going backwards on health. The junk-food cycle has stuck. But on the poverty side, thanks to footballer Marcus Rashford, who campaigned for some of the recommendations, there is progress on the way we create safety nets.
I knew the food strategy wasn’t going to be possible to deliver immediately. We set out to create a series of ideas, because you can’t fix the system unless you understand why it’s gone wrong. I also knew that people weren’t going to read all the recommendations on the government website, which is why I turned it into a book, Ravenous.
You write about the appetite-suppressing drug, Ozempic, in the book. Is that a feasible method for reducing our collective weight?
It makes people feel full, and the whole food brain shuts down, so you are not worrying about food all the time. For people who have been struggling with their weight all their lives, it is better to take it than not. However, there will be side effects. Doctors say if you try to hack a complex system by just doing one thing, almost certainly that will cause problems down the line. So, I don’t think it is a responsible solution. It’s also expensive, and not dealing with the root cause.
There’s a lot of anger that comes through in the book. Where does that come from?
One lightning rod for my ire was former PM Liz Truss, when she was doing the Australian trade deal, which was incoherent with what Defra was trying to do. I was talking with one of her special advisers and halfway through the conversation it became clear that she hadn’t read the draft of the deal, which made me really angry.
There are a lot of people in politics who are enormously talented and work incredibly hard, but others are deeply tribal and ideological and spend too much time in their tribes without testing their thinking. But it’s not all gloom and doom. There’s no going back on the agricultural transition, and there’s still a good chance we will end up being the first country to create a form of farming that is producing enough food while restoring biodiversity and sequestering carbon.
There are all sorts of ways we can go wrong, but compared with health – where there’s a good chance we’ll end up drugging a third of our population – I’m optimistic on the environmental side.