Henry Dimbleby: “The UK is an increasingly sick and impoverished nation” – report on a food and farming event

It was quite a coup for South Hams Society to get Henry Dimbleby to speak on the important issues of food security, food safety and the future of agriculture in this country and the event held in Kingsbridge was well-attended on a chilly Friday night . Also on the panel were the MP for Totnes constituency (to be renamed South Devon), Anthony Mangnall, and Caroline Voaden, the Lib Dem candidate for the next general election.

Henry Dimbleby, Anthony Mangnall and Caroline Voaden. South Hams Society event, Oct 20 2023

Henry Dimbleby’s government website bio says:

“Henry Dimbleby was the lead non-executive board member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from March 2018 to March 2023.

“Henry was co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain. He is also co-founder and Director of The Sustainable Restaurant Association and of London Union, which runs some of London’s most successful street food markets. He co-authored The School Food Plan (2013), which set out actions to transform what children eat in schools and how they learn about food.”

What it doesn’t say is that he quit his DEFRA role as food tsar in disgust at the Conservative Party’s decision to renege on promises to restrict junk food advertising, and their failure to adopt many of his policy recommendations.

Mr Dimbleby clearly remains angry and frustrated by the Conservative government’s approach to the whole issue of food inequality and loss of biodiversity. He made several key points:

  • Our heavily-processed food is poisoning us.
  • The UK is an increasingly sick and impoverished nation.
  • Our diet leads to more cancers, more type 2 diabetes, more hypertension and more depression.
  • Our pleasure response to fat and sugar is exploited by the food processors. 80 per cent of processed foods are too unhealthy to serve to children.
  • We spend more on sweets than on fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Medicalising the effects, though a real danger, is not the way to go. [Keep feeding us junk and then give us pills to fix the consequences … that way the big corporates make money at both ends].
  • Truss trade deals trashed the pledges that were made to farmers that counterparties should meet their high standards.
  • Truss’s record is one of destruction of environmental protections and of swingeing funding cuts. [in case she thinks she can make a comeback!]
  • 20 per cent of the UK’s farmland produces just 3 per cent of our calories.
  • It’s a myth that we cannot risk building housing on some farmland … and there’s a government report that makes this case, but Dimbleby says the conservatives will never publish it [because it’s not a vote winner].
  • Payments to upland farmers, for example, have to be got right, but there is no support for such measures from Number 10. Sunak has no interest in the environment.
  • We need a national land plan to establish which land is suitable for what: food/biodiversity/sequestering carbon, etc.
  • We need to stop depending on meat for our protein. To any but the most affluent, it is not realistic to promote the notion of eating better meat, less frequently, but we must all eat less.
  • The meat raised on the planet weighs twice as much as that of the entire human population of Earth.
  • The planet is on the verge of environmental collapse because we do not value nature. Instead, we pay people to destroy it – big agriculture, fossil fuel companies, and big fisheries are paid trillions for exploitation and destruction.
  • Biodiversity is a massive casualty of the activities of the corporate destroyers.
  • Overall, Dimbleby was pessimistic regarding medicalising obesity etc., but optimistic that, in future, farming would deliver environmental benefits.

Caroline Voaden emphasised the precariousness of our food supply networks. Our dependence on supermarkets exposes us to the downside of just-in-time delivery and stocking. However, empty shelves were one thing, empty tummies are a more serious concern and she listed some shocking statistics:

  • 1 in 5 adults are skipping meals (latest figures suggest it’s more like 1 in 4);
  • there are an estimated 4 million children living in food poverty;
  • 11,000 people hospitalised with malnutrition last year;
  • the UK has the fattest population in Europe and the third fattest in the world. [Recent stats show that UK children’s height is being stunted by diet, whilst they top the charts on the obesity front].

Voaden then switched her attention to the impact of trade deals on farmers, and berated the government for allowing counterparties to undercut our standards.

“The anger in the farming community is still there and still absolutely visceral”, she said. “Farmers have been insulted by this government.”

The dominance of the supermarkets needs to be addressed. It is not right that they can cancel orders on a whim or expect farmers and growers to take the hit when they reduce prices to compete. Price cuts which put producers out of business are not the way to ensure food security.

Incumbent MP, Anthony Mangnall, appeared anxious to put as much clear water between himself and the government, in which he serves as a parliamentary private secretary, frequently citing the French as exemplars. He was happy to confirm that the Australia trade deal was a mistake that would not be repeated and which, he claimed, set no precedent. Henry Dimbleby challenged this assertion, asking “how can we trust you?”

Good question!

Mangnall then gave an account of all the things he implied he was doing singlehandedly … bad stuff was done by the government, good stuff by him, as indicated by the persistent use of “I” to start most sentences.

What particularly struck me was his triumphant claim that the standards required of our domestic farmers had not been cut. This was meant to assuage fears over the impact of shoddy trade deals. The whole point is that our farmers have the ground cut from under them when counterparties are allowed to do things that they, quite rightly, are not. That’s the whole point, Mr Mangnall. Yet again we have disadvantaged our own people.

He talked about the creation of marine conservation areas and improving standards in fishing, but dismissed concerns about the beam trawler fleet.

He praised the Environmental Land Management (ELMS) Scheme’s potential but stressed it was early days and it still had a way to go. He did not agree with Voaden that the government shouldn’t have stopped basic payments before introducing the scheme. Dimbleby wondered why the NFU had not had the wit to negotiate the sum farmers needed from the Treasury, before settling for an amount that fell way short and left many farmers on the very brink of financial ruin.

Voaden explained that the Lib Dems would add a further £1bn to ELMS (an increase of around 30 per cent). She also pointed out that large farms could afford to employ consultants to navigate the complexities of ELMS, whilst smaller farms struggled without much-needed support.

She went on to speak up about the elephant in the room – Brexit – and reminded the audience that the consequence had been a massive increase in paperwork for exporters and a hit to levels of trade. Her Conservative rival refused to accept that exporting was tricky with a wave of his hand and a claim that everything had been digitised. [We have since learned that this is not true for shellfish exporters, for whom every day is a nightmare. They have to send 17 sheets of paper every day from Brixham to Tiverton, in a taxi, for a vet to sign and stamp each page!]

Mangnall also referred to the independent panel who will make recommendations on land use on Dartmoor. He stated that politicians will have to abide by their advice. I could not help wondering what Dimbleby felt about the government’s record of heeding the wise counsel of experts, given his own experience.

Dimbleby probably shocked many when he revealed that DEFRA did not know whether the country could feed itself in an emergency. He emphasised, however, that total self sufficiency would be dangerous as, in the event of a massive crop failure, we would be bereft of alternative sources of supply. He would advise a 60 per cent target for domestically produced food.

What we needed above all in our food system, he said, was care: reconnection with local suppliers would go some way to reinjecting this missing ingredient. Dimbleby, like many others, wants to see more education on diet, nutrition and cooking in our schools and invited any schools who needed help with their meals to get in touch. Voaden added that housing schemes which included land set aside for growing fruit and vegetables would be hugely beneficial to the physical and mental health of residents and would build a much-needed sense of community.

Many of the ideas to improve our diets require money at a time when spending cuts and cost of living rises make such improvements challenging at best and impossible for those on the brink of destitution. I find myself frustrated by the unwillingness to go after the manufacturers and supermarkets. All the pressure to change seems to be exerted on the poor consumer. Food inequality is a massive issue. Local markets, organic food, welfare meat are all very well, but they are rather middle-class elite solutions. There are teachers out there feeding hungry pupils out of their own pockets. There are families trying to survive on one meal a day, eating cold food out of tins because they don’t have the money to turn on the stove. Families get caught in the ultra-processed food trap…it’s cheap and parents can be confident the kids will eat it, because it’s been designed to be addictive; experimentation with healthy alternatives is an expensive and risky option, especially without support and guidance.

Many of us simply don’t understand what real food poverty looks like.

It’s high time the poisoners paid, just as the polluters should pay … and not by passing the cost of doing the right thing on to the consumer. You and I might be able to spend our food budget healthily and ethically but, for millions, it is not an option. Food poverty, obesity and mental health issues all come at a cost, both to the individual and to the state, but if policy is shaped by donors and lobbyists who make money from flogging fattening food, or the drugs that deal with obesity, what incentive is there to change anything? We cannot just sit back and blame the poor for being too ignorant or too lazy to sort their diet out, and leave them to reap the consequences in ill health, stunted growth, obesity, cognitive impairment and early death.