Published on 14 May 2024
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Fixing our broken food system: where policy meets politics

Keynote speaker Henry Dimbleby, author of the Government’s National Food Strategy, shared insights into “why food policy is so damn hard to do” at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy Annual Conference 2024.

Questions about what we eat as individuals and how we consume food as a society have increased in significance amidst the challenges of austerity. A rise in the cost of living, a dysfunctional food system and general mental and physical health issues, have made these questions urgently needing to be addressed.

In his keynote speech at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy Annual Conference 2024, Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of Leon Restaurants and food campaigner, served up the intricacies of the global food system, explored its historical trajectory, discussed current challenges, and proposed solutions for fixing our broken food system. For over a decade he has worked hard to influence both policymakers and the public to improve healthy eating habits and systemic change.

And so the story you tell is almost as important as the as the policies themselves.

Henry began by emphasising the importance of storytelling in shaping policy and political action. In 2013 he co-authored the School Food Plan, which led to the introduction of free school meals and mandatory cooking lessons for children pressured through with the help of international footballer and End Child Food Poverty Campaigner, Marcus Rashford, by leveraging public awareness.

He also led the UK’s National Food Strategy (2020) which focussed on health, sustainability, and social responsibility. Yet, despite some progress, he resigned as a government advisor in 2023, citing concerns over policy translation.

The evolution of the food system from post-World War II to the present day shows the remarkable achievements in agricultural productivity led by figures like Norman Borlaug. However, there are serious unintended consequences of such advancements, particularly the environmental and health ramifications of modern food production.

There are two dominant feedback loops contributing to the system’s dysfunction: the “junk food cycle” and the degradation of natural capital. The current food system incentivises the production and consumption of unhealthy processed foods, leading to a vicious cycle of increasing illness and healthcare costs.

Nature’s value is often overlooked in economic calculations, leading to its exploitation and depletion. Sir Partha Dasgupta’s work calls for an urgent reassessment of our relationship with nature and incorporate its true worth into economic frameworks to inform decision-making decisions including on food policy.

Drawing on insights from other economists like Arthur Pigou and Ronald Coase, Henry advocated for a nuanced understanding of feedback loops and the implementation of targeted interventions to disrupt them. Collaboration is important across sectors and disciplines to drive meaningful change in the food system.

You require government intervention to drive take up.

As such, the National Food Strategy adopted a strategy similar to the energy transition; government intervention, including subsidies and market creation, to lower costs and increase the adoption of electric vehicles / healthy food. As infrastructure improves and costs decrease, consumer demand leads the transition to drive change in consumer behaviour and industry practices.

The Food Strategy had four main objectives each with corresponding policies: break the junk food cycle; reduce diet-related inequality; make the best use of our land and; create a long-term shift in food culture.

Specific policies to achieve these objectives included proposing a salt and sugar reformulation tax, mandatory reporting to discourage unhealthy food sales and supporting people in poverty with initiatives like fruit and veg vouchers. To address environmental concerns it advocated for a land use framework, paying for nature restoration, implementing the polluter pay principle, and ensuring net biodiversity gain.  Long-term cultural shifts in food consumption would be facilitated by creating statutory targets similar to climate change goals, incentives and ensuring sustained pressure for action despite changing governments.

But it’s not happened yet, so what’s next?

Henry is working with Dolly van Tulleken, University of Cambridge, to test a theory that identifies four issues with evoking change.  They are interviewing every Prime Minister since 1990 and every Secretary of State for Health to find out why policy on diet related ill health has been so unspectacularly unsuccessful?

Interestingly now in Treasury, they are waking up to the cost of diet to our productivity.

The first issue identified is incentives. There are few upsides for a politician to deal with diet related ill health but there are significant downsides. For example, the Times Health Commission proposed banning smoking but there was ideological resistance from libertarians on both political sides. The proposed stricter regulations on tobacco advertising, increased taxation on tobacco products, and “quit smoking” campaigns to curb the detrimental effects on public health were never going to win seats.

Other countries like South Korea however administer many food interventions as they see the health of their population as being absolutely essential – particularly as they border with a nuclear state to the North. Food security and healthy workers are paramount.

The second issue is uncertainty. Government looks to use evidence-based policy but if there isn’t any evidence then nothing is done. Therefore, testing the impact of introducing a sugar tax to decrease the increase of diabetes type II, becomes impossible without actually implementing it so it gets blocked.

Third is the structure of government. The dispersion of responsibility for food across various government departments illustrates the challenges of decision-making and policy implementation. It highlights instances where conflicting interests hinder progress, such as lobbying against advertising bans on junk food. The importance of a strong central authority, like Number 10, needs to navigate these complexities and ensure effective policy execution.

The final barrier is that lobbying in the UK is much more subtle than that in the US. TV advertisers and big supermarkets are resistance to regulation which hinders progress in implementing certain policies.

One solution that carries some optimism is to emphasise the relationship of food and climate change – which people cannot deny.  There is a strong argument for introducing a land use framework to map out where it’s to plant trees and grow food for sustainability. This would integrate decision-making, transparently cover all land uses, engage communities, and support sustainability across England.

Another solution that seems harder for people to accept is addressing the risks of junk food to public health. Rather than taking the policy route, commercial companies are offering weight-loss drugs that suppress the appetite by mimicking the hormone glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). But scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge warn that hormones have multiple roles and cuting one off can cause health issues later down the line.  

Things need to be done differently and one glimmer of optimism is the work of Eddie Abew who has three million followers on social media  and weaponised the idea of ultra processed foods (UPF). He contends that gifting loved ones foods high in salt, sugar, and fat, such as chocolate on Mother’s Day, poses harm and is a way to claim early inheritance. His mantra is  “Wake the f*** up to the health risks”.

Henry concluded that things might have actually got so bad that people are finally waking up to the need for change. The potential for addressing food system challenges through innovative solutions and grassroots activism brings him cautious optimism. He continues to advocate for improving food standards, having co-founded initiatives like Leon Restaurants, the Sustainable Restaurant Association, and the charity, Chefs in Schools, and Bramble – an investment firm aiming to transform the food system. The author of “Ravenous: How to get ourselves and our planet into shape” encouraged Conference delegates to engage in initiatives at the local level, emphasising the power of collective action to drive systemic change.

Watch the keynote lecture

Listen to the keynote lecture

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

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