Ravenous: An Interview with Henry Dimbleby on his Appetite for Change

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Henry Dimbleby with his cat, Ronnie | Credit: Jemima Lewis

I recently had the opportunity to interview Henry Dimbleby on-stage at the Oxford Literary Festival. 

Henry is co-founder of Leon, a chain of restaurants that serves naturally fast food that aims to be good food and kind to the planet.  He is also Director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association and author of the National Food Strategy, an independent review commissioned by the UK Government and published in 2021. Known as the UK Government’s ‘food tsar’, Henry has been critical of the government’s response to the strategy.

For over four years, Henry has also been lead Non-Executive Director on the Board of Defra, described by then Defra secretary, Michael Gove as a ‘once in a generation opportunity’ to change the food system. Earlier this year, Henry quit, slamming the ‘shocking’ failure of those politicians, he believes have blown that chance.

It is against this backdrop of fast food, controversy and political intrigue that Henry has published a new book ‘Ravenous: How to get Ourselves and our Planet into Shape’ that I had the opportunity to interview Henry, and here’s what he told me:

Q: When you were writing the book with your wife, Jemima, what was the most surprising thing that you learned during the writing process?

A: I would say two things.

During the food strategy process, I had not visualised how completely agriculture had taken over everything.

The other thing I was surprised about was the kind of subtle and pernicious way that the food companies lobby government, which was subtler and more effective than I had thought it would be.

Also, my wife is a journalist, so she’s very precise about how to use languages and how you create sentences. The process of being forced to write things very carefully actually took art. There’s lots of stuff in the book that wasn’t in the food strategy… trying to write it as a popular book actually made the thinking better.

Q: You clearly put a lot of yourself into the UK Food Strategy and made no secret, understandably, of your disappointment that the government have not acted more quickly and thoroughly on it. To what extent was the book a reaction to the Food Strategy?

A:  We’re in a democracy, so if you do an independent review, you cannot expect the government to take up all of your recommendations. That wouldn’t be right or appropriate. They’re the ones who are elected, and I knew that we had to make a strong case, change the mood music, change the story. Then you have to be quite tactical sometimes with policy.

So, for example, the stuff on holiday activity and food programs, giving basically free school meals to children throughout the holidays, was because I had sent part one of the review to the CEO of Manchester United, who I happen to know, saying, can you pass this on to Marcus Rashford? And then Marcus, completely out of the blue, contacted me in September and said, I want to campaign on your recommendations, and he ran this incredible campaign, and in October the government caved.

Q: One of the most important ideas in your book and in the strategy was the idea of setting a reduction target for the consumption of meat and dairy. How inevitable was it that government at first pass, were going to turn down that recommendation? And how do we get them now to accept it?

A: The recommendation of 30% was based solely on solving an equation that said, how much do you need to reduce meat by to sequester enough carbon and restore enough biodiversity?

In the book, I also look a bit more into the ethical concerns. Henry Mance wrote a wonderful book, which I read after the food strategy about meat, where he talked about the meat paradox, which is that we think that animals are well treated because we want to eat them.

For example, if someone is eating crisps and you ask them how well do you think animals are reared, they will say they think they are being reared more cruelly than if they happen to be eating a meat snack at the time.

This is because you don’t want to think you are the person who is eating meat and allowing this cruelty.

I do think that in 150 years’ time, we might look back on pretty much all forms of meat production and certainly dairy where you take away the calves, with revulsion.

To answer your question about meat reduction, we have to do this without the government.

I think we can actually work as a society to reduce the amount of meat eaten. I think if you look at developing nations now, they’re plateauing. If we’re lucky, we might see something similar to the mobile phone and the landline, where they actually leapfrog us and don’t go through that very heavy meat-eating phase.

Henry and Philip photographed together at the Oxford Literary Festival Spring 2023 | Credit: Philip Lymbery

Q: You’re clearly concerned about the direction of the food system and what it’s doing to add to the climate and nature emergencies.  What gives you hope?

A: Two things give me hope.

First of all, I think now within the environmental space, there really is quite large acceptance of the problem and this idea of the invisibility of nature.

The other thing on the environmental side is the still tumbling cost of solar power. I can see a point where solar power gets so cheap that we can make our own veg on the LEDs in this country even in winter.

On the health side, I am not optimistic. I think the likelihood is we’ll end up with 20 million people in the UK permanently medicated because we can’t be bothered to change the food system, so we’ll just medicate people out of it.

Q: It’s been a fascinating hour with you and we are nearly out of time. In 30 seconds, what would be your message that you would like the audience to take away?

A: The key thing, I think, is hope. I do believe in the power of love.  I do believe that we can change our food culture and I think we need to.

However, this will only happen if we all believe we can do it and if we act in our communities.

Also, final thought, if you’re not able to influence the change from the top down, enjoy being the change from the bottom up.


Note: Please do read Henry’s book, ‘Ravenous: How to get ourselves and our planet into shape’, it is truly excellent; accessible, insightful, fun as well as thought-provoking.

I am delighted to say that Henry has kindly given Compassion in World Farming 10 signed books to give away, so please keep an eye out for details on how to win a copy.

Henry is speaking at our landmark Extinction or Regeneration Conference next week – do join us:   

Thank you.

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