Photo by Tara Moore

Starving for a good argument

Henry Dimbleby’s new book doesn’t hit the spot

Artillery Row Books

For reasons that may never be fully understood, Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of the high-end junk food chain Leon, was commissioned to produce the National Food Strategy in 2019. Two volumes of it were published in 2020 and 2021. Ravenous is Dimbleby’s attempt to turn them into something people might actually read.

Ravenous: How to get ourselves and our planet into shape,
Henry Dimbleby with Jemima Lewis
(Profile books, £14.99)

To give Dimbleby his due, he took the job seriously. He didn’t just sit around waiting to be lobbied by single-issue pressure groups, although they clearly bent his ear. He travelled widely and interviewed people with various different perspectives (including your reviewer). He digested “the science”. Nonetheless, as he had been asked by the government to think about what he would do if he were in charge of the entire food supply, it is perhaps unsurprising that the imaginary power went to his head. Not only does he believe that he has a plan to beat obesity, but he has also worked out how to defeat climate change. 

In any previous era, a National Food Strategy would focus on ensuring people get enough to eat. Dimbleby is more interested in getting people to eat less. The whole issue of nutrition is seen through the lens of obesity, a first world problem if ever there was one. In an effort to convince the reader that fat people are a threat to society, Dimbleby says that the costs of obesity are “hard to overstate” but then immediately overstates them. He refers to an OECD estimate that “the UK economy loses £74 billion a year in lost workforce productivity, shortened lives and NHS costs because of conditions related to high BMI”. As a result, he says, “each person in the United Kingdom pays on average an extra £409 in taxes per year”.

This is a misunderstanding of what the OECD is measuring. You can put a monetary value on a lost year of life. You can estimate how much work we would have got out of someone had they not died prematurely. Neither of these is a cost to the taxpayer. It is like calculating how many years of life have been prevented by contraception and then claiming that condoms cost taxpayers £500 billion a year. The fact of the matter is that obesity does not cost taxpayers anything aside from some costs to the NHS, and even those are likely outweighed by the savings no one wants to talk about.

The externality argument is therefore weak, but what about the market failure argument? Dimbleby does not deviate from the conventional “public health” view that obesity is an “epidemic” caused by a “food environment” infested with “ultra-processed food” from which the beleaguered public cannot escape. Willpower, he says, is “utterly ineffective”, physical exercise doesn’t make any difference, and the idea that people have choice is “deluded”.

How much choice do consumers really have? Certainly we can choose from a profusion of sugary, fatty, heavily processed convenience foods. Anyone within walking distance of a corner shop can “choose” from hundreds of such products. But real sustenance is more expensive and much harder to find.

But is it? How many people do all their grocery shopping in corner shops? The independent sector makes up a tiny part of the food retail market. The British overwhelmingly do their food shopping in supermarkets where prices are low and choice is abundant. The average Asda stocks over 20,000 different food and beverage products. The fruit and veg is the first thing you see when entering. Good, healthy food has never been cheaper. We might not always buy it, but it is there.

Portraying the public as helpless pawns justifies government action

In an attempt to overcome this rather obvious hurdle to his argument, Dimbleby asks us to imagine an overworked single mother. Her children are fussy eaters. She is on a very low income, does not live within walking distance of a shop that sells fresh food, has no access to a car, does not own a freezer and has a tiny kitchen. Unable to buy in bulk, she has little chance of making a healthy meal for 70p. Even if she did, her children might not like it, and they would have to go to bed hungry. Dimbleby implores us to ask what choice this unfortunate woman has other than to eat unhealthily and therefore become obese.

Whilst this is not quite a straw man argument, the number of people who tick all these boxes is very small — whereas the number of people “living with obesity” (to use the fashionable terminology) is very large. Nine out of ten people in the UK regularly buy their groceries from supermarkets. Eight out of ten people have a car. If 35 per cent of people in the lowest income quintile are obese because they are too poor to get to a supermarket, how do we explain 29 per cent of people on average incomes being obese? 

Dimbleby presents the supposedly shocking statistic that 3.3 million “live in areas where there are no shops selling fresh ingredients within 15 minutes by public transport”. He portrays these places as “food swamps” where people have little choice but to live off fried chicken and kebabs. He doesn’t give a reference for the 3.3 million figure, but I bet nearly all of them live in the countryside and have a car. If anything, it’s a surprise the figure is so low.

Dimbleby says that highly processed foods are “three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods”. This is a common trope of nanny statists, but it is based on a tautological fallacy. Healthier food is healthier largely because it has fewer calories. You would have to eat a lot of carrots to consume as many calories as you would get from a pizza, but that does not make pizza cheaper than carrots. By measuring “per calorie”, rather than per kilogram or per meal, Dimbleby turns the virtue of low calorie food into a vice.

The whole purpose of portraying the public as helpless pawns is to justify government action. If people have no agency then surely it is better for them to be coerced by the benevolent state rather than by the greedy food industry? Dimbleby parrots this narrative, and he probably believes it, but he is no stranger to the dessert trolley himself. He occasionally hints at the real reason why people choose “ultra-processed food” over boiled veg. Suffice to say, it has very little to do with price, availability or advertising.

We have a predilection for calorie-dense foods, which means food companies invest more time and money creating these foods … 

Over 80 per cent of processed food sold in the UK is unhealthy. This is not because food manufacturers are evil: it is a simple matter of supply and demand.

In other words, it is delicious. That’s why people want it and that’s why companies produce it. We find it delicious because humans crave food that is high in energy for sound biological reasons. Once society becomes affluent enough for everybody to afford to consume as many calories as they like, it is inevitable that a lot of people are going to get fat, especially when physical activity has been engineered out of their lives.

Insofar as this is a problem, it would seem to be intractable. Dimbleby’s plan to tackle obesity is to “pull lots of levers at the same time and hope for the best”. This approach, whilst refreshingly honest, is a terrible way to make policy. A doctor would not recommend taking random pills and hoping for the best, nor would a surgeon amputate lots of limbs to see what happens. Only in “public health” are untested treatments imposed on the entire population without any credible evidence that they will work and with no thought for the unintended consequences.

Dimbleby is particularly keen on taxing sugar and salt to encourage food manufacturers to stop using these ingredients. Salt contains no calories so it is a mystery why he thinks using less of it will reduce obesity. Whatever manufacturers use instead of salt is bound to make their products more calorific. Is it possible that the government’s salt reduction scheme that has been running since the 1990s has made people fatter? Is it significant that the Japanese and Swedes have much lower rates of obesity than Britons but eat considerably more salt? Dimbleby doesn’t trouble himself with such questions, although he hints at the risks of meddling with the food supply on the basis of science that changes every few years when he adds the caveat: “If scientific research finds that artificial sweeteners are a risk to health, it [the tax] might need to be extended to cover these.” Wouldn’t it be too late by then?

Dimbleby is not an idiot and he has plenty of experience in the food industry so it is extraordinary that he thinks that reformulation is a credible solution to obesity. He says that his dedication to producing healthy food when he was running Leon meant the business didn’t turn a profit for ten years. How “healthy” is Leon food by Dimbleby’s own definition? Their hamburger has 20 per cent more calories, 40 per cent more fat and 50 per cent more salt than a Big Mac. Ten of their chicken nuggets have twice as much salt as twenty McNuggets. Their double chocolate cookie has the same amount of sugar as a McDonald’s triple chocolate cookie, with a lot more fat.

In fairness to Leon, they also have rice boxes, hummus and wraps on the menu, but that only offers people choice — something Dimbleby dismisses as a myth. When it comes to the supposedly simple solution of taking the sugar and salt out, they seem to have got nowhere. If they can’t do it, what chance does anyone else have?

The philosopher kings who concoct such schemes are deadly serious

Yet Dimbleby’s plans for food manufacturing are modest compared to his frankly totalitarian plans for farming. He argues that we’re all going to die of climate change unless we stop eating beef and lamb. He considers farmland used to produce meat to be “unproductive” and wants it used to sequester carbon instead. 

How to reduce meat consumption? Not unpredictably, he is tempted by the idea of a meat tax, but decided against it after receiving negative feedback when he held a series of “deliberative dialogues” (i.e. focus groups). Instead, he pins his hopes on “alternative proteins” such as lab-grown meat, which he is convinced will soon wipe out the meat industry and push countless farms into bankruptcy. Perhaps it will, but this kind of creative destruction does not require a national strategy.

What really gets Dimbleby excited is the opportunity for bureaucrats in a post-meat world. It is no exaggeration to say that he wants the countryside to be centrally planned with every inch of land monitored and controlled by Whitehall. He writes:

 … the government should create an in-depth, easy-house, digitised map of the UK. This would contain layers of data about each area of the land: everything from flood risks to soil composition, health outcomes to housing density, to endangered species, to tourism numbers and more. A dedicated team of civil servants would be put in charge of collecting and verifying the data, to keep it “clean” and up-to-date.

This digital map … should be used to inform a proper “Rural Land Use Framework” for England. Planners and policymakers would be able to click on any part of the map to get the information they need about how that land would best be used.

He envisages farmers being employed by the state to make dry stone walls and dig ponds so the countryside looks suitably rustic when people like him are walking their dogs. Their main job would be planting trees until Britain becomes a giant carbon sequestration project dominated by wild forests. Since wild forests don’t require any stewardship from humans in the long-term, the farmers would be digging their own graves, career-wise, and after a few years could be put to work in the towns whilst the countryside is left to woodland creatures and the people who really matter: ramblers.

Dimbleby’s ideas might seem wacky, but they are wholly in line with current government policy. His plan for the countryside is only an exaggerated version of what Michael Gove instigated at Defra (where Dimbleby used to work). Gove decided that producing food was too damaging to the environment, so farmers should instead concentrate on being stewards of the land. The post-Brexit subsidy system essentially pays farmers to do odd jobs. 

Nor is there much original about Dimbleby’s anti-obesity strategy. Boris Johnson stole some of his thunder by announcing several of his policies just before the National Food Strategy was published. Public Health England started a food reformulation scheme in 2015, and a tax on sugary drinks came into force three years later. He is merely extrapolating.

Instigating Dimbleby’s plan in full might not be popular. The Farmers-Citizen Movement achieved remarkable success in the Dutch general election last week when voters revolted against anti-farming policies that fall well short of what Dimbleby has in mind. These are not wild flights of fancy or thought experiments; the philosopher kings who concoct such schemes are deadly serious. If you want to understand the fears and dreams that motivate them, Ravenous provides a useful insight.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover