Appetite for destruction: How ‘miracle’ of cheap food is killing us
HUMANITY’S hunger is terrifying and destructive. History is littered with the dreadful things humans have done to satisfy our most primal urge: the need to eat.
Henry Dimbleby turns to a story of hunger and horror to illustrate how irresistible our appetite really is: the infamous “Alive” case, when a plane carrying Uruguayan rugby players crashed in the Andes. Survivors resorted to cannibalism, eating their dead friends.
Dimbleby’s new book Ravenous explores how the way humans eat today is killing both us as a species and the environment. Until his resignation just over a week ago, Dimbleby was the UK Government’s food tsar, responsible for drafting the National Food Strategy.
He quit so he could freely criticise the failure of British politicians to get a grip on how the food industry is causing devastation when it comes to health and the climate.
The son of the famous broadcaster David Dimbleby, he has spent his life at the heart of the British food industry. Dimbleby set up the well-known restaurant chain Leon and co-founded the Sustainable Restaurant Association. He’s the consummate insider, now revealing the dirty, and very dangerous, secrets of a business he knows intimately.
Fittingly, Dimbleby sat down at the kitchen table of his London home to outline to The Herald on Sunday his vision for reorganising the food industry in order to save ourselves and the planet.
Before he starts, though, he’s got one more dark tale to illustrate the all-consuming power of human hunger: the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. In 1944, a group of conscientious objectors volunteered to take part in an experiment at Minnesota University into the extremes of hunger to establish how to save the lives of Nazi concentration camps victims suffering starvation.
The subjects underwent intense food deprivation. “All their other instincts evaporated,” Dimbleby explains. “All they could think about was food.” They watched movies for distraction, but saw the films “completely through the prism of starvation”, he says. “They didn’t care about love scenes or car crashes, but when food came on screen it was absolutely thrilling. It explains how powerful appetite is.”
The central thesis of Ravenous outlines how we can build a food system which provides healthy, affordable nourishment without destroying the environment. Today, most food trashes the planet and damages our health.
This past week, it emerged that there is the same amount of salt in one slice of most supermarket white bread as a packet of crisps. As Dimbleby explains, 57% of the food we eat in Britain is “ultra-processed”. Some 85% of product lines from FMCG companies – that’s fast-moving consumer goods by the big processed food firms – are deemed by the World Health Organisation as “unhealthy to market to children”.
THE food industry is responsible for more than one-quarter of the world’s entire global greenhouse gas emissions. One in four Britons are obese; a further 38% are overweight. Food has created a time bomb when it comes to human health and the environment.
The system must change, Dimbleby says. “But to change the system you must change the way people think about the system.” Ravenous is his attempt to scare some sense into us.
Our food system started out as a “miracle of human ingenuity”, Dimbleby explains. The famous post-war farming revolution created a ready food supply for much of the world. New chemical fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation and advances in irrigation saw crop yields boom. Research by the scientist Norman Borlaug was central to this success. He developed high-yield disease resistant wheat, an act which won him a Nobel Prize for saving up to one billion lives potentially lost to hunger.
By the 21st century, though, the consequences of this farming revolution have been shattering: it has wrecked environmental havoc, leading to huge declines in biodiversity, mass deforestation, freshwater pollution, freshwater scarcity, sea contamination, as well as being the biggest cause of climate change after energy. It’s led to an explosion of cheap, processed food that has earned billions for multinationals, but thrown human health, particularly in the West, into jeopardy.
Hunger may now start rising due to the impact of the global food industry. Climate change, propelled partly by agriculture, will see crop yields in the global south decline. In the worst-case scenario, that could trigger conflict and mass migration.
“BY 2035,” Dimbleby adds, “the NHS will be spending more on treating type 2 diabetes than it does today treating all cancers. That’s just one diet-related condition.” Huge amounts of public money will be sucked into treating food-related illnesses. Economists warn that health is the biggest drag factor on growth. “The biggest cause of non-communicable disease is food,” says Dimbleby. Unless we fix the problem, the country will “become more miserable, sick and impoverished”.
Fixing health isn’t a matter of personal willpower, Dimbleby warns. Exercise and education alone won’t stop the health crisis caused by bad food. Humans are, he notes, hardwired in evolutionary terms to eat fats, sugars and salt. Our amygdala, which controls hunger, evolved in marine worms. As hunter-gathers we gorged on fat, sugar and salt when we found it. But back in the Stone Age, these were rare finds. Today, fast food comes direct to our door. That’s why junk food is addictive: it satisfies evolutionary cravings.
It’s not “your own fat fault”, Dimbleby says, if you’ve gained weight or become sick from eating processed food. “That’s not true.” Evolutionary needs render us relatively lacking in “free will”. We’ve effectively given junk-food, fast-food chains carte blanche to kill us. “Food companies are making stuff that makes us want to eat more. The more we eat, the more we get sick. We need to break the junk-food cycle.”
THE only answer is government intervention. Dimbleby ran focus groups around Britain and found that most of us “want government to intervene. People are fed up, they don’t want their children marketed junk food”. The problem is that government – particularly the Conservative government – is reluctant to interfere with the market. When it comes to big business, one simple fix would be restricting junk-food advertisements.
But taming the junk-food industry alone isn’t enough. We need to fix farming so that there’s fresh, affordable, healthy food as an alternative. British farmers receive around £3.5 billion annually in government subsidies. “We’re paying people to destroy nature,” Dimbleby says. So pay subsidies that lead to better food outcomes, with more healthy and sustainable produce.
One way to transition to a sustainable food supply which doesn’t hike prices would simply be a more intelligent use of land. Today, Dimbleby explains, 20% of Britain’s farmland produces only 3% of our calories. These are mostly “unproductive” upland farms. Take some of that land out of agriculture and subsidise it for reforestation, sequestering carbon in peat bogs, and restoring biodiversity. It could also be used for renewables like solar and wind.
That tweak would have little effect on food production – especially if we get real about meat. An astonishing 85% of farmland is used to either grow food for animals we eat or to graze animals we eat. But reducing how much meat we eat is easier said than done. In focus groups, Dimbleby saw real resistance to reducing meat. It’s almost part of “personal identity”, he feels.
BY using farmland more wisely and eating less meat, “you can easily feed the planet” affordably while reducing agriculture’s environmental impact. Fundamentally, our use of land and farms is “all wrong”. One of the few benefits of Brexit, Dimbleby says, is that Britain can now make these changes to farming and land use.
Failing to act may well lead to dystopia, Dimbleby fears. The UK Government is currently considering mass-prescribing appetite suppressant drugs to 12 million people to tackle the obesity crisis. In the past, Dimbleby says, gastric surgery had limited effect. Such is the power of human appetite that even if gastric bands were fitted to reduce the amount of food consumed, many people created workarounds, like drinking high-calorie mixes of ice cream and chocolate, defeating the purpose of the operation. Dimbleby worries that “hacking our hormonal instinct” for food with drugs could have grave and unforeseen consequences.
Environmentally, the food industry is one of the world’s biggest “dirt creators”, Dimbleby says. Yet we also rely on it as a means of addressing poverty. It’s a harsh truth, but cheap food keeps poor people alive. “Environmental destruction isn’t a sustainable solution to poverty,” he adds.
In a society as unequal as ours, politicians have to address the causes of poverty instead of relying on cheap food as a “sticking plaster” – albeit a sticking plaster which causes poor health in the long run.
JUNK food is more “pernicious” than smoking, Dimbleby believes. Unlike eating, we don’t have to smoke. “Yet food companies bombard us with temptation.” The purveyors of junk food “dig into our amygdala, our instincts”. He sees comparisons between mobile phones and junk food: both are ubiquitous and work by triggering deep-seated reward mechanisms in the brain.
Our ability to fend off the lure of
junk-food companies is also affected by: genetics, as some people are more predisposed to crave fats, salts and sugars; family, as if parents feed children bad food they will want more as adults; and income, as poverty means more reliance on cheap and therefore harmful food.
“If you live in one of the 10% poorest postcodes, you’ll live on average seven years less than someone in the richest,” Dimbleby says. “In Westminster, the average life expectancy is 88, versus 76 in some of the poorest places.” In the poorest postcodes, people also “live less long than they did 20 years ago” as life expectancy has fallen due to income inequality.
The UK is in need of more sustainable farming methods
THERE’S one other big change needed to fix our relationship with food: a “culture shift” when it comes to home cooking with fresh produce so we “move away from processed food entirely”. Dimbleby adds: “People say that’s never going to happen, that the genie is out of the bottle. They forget that we’ve changed our food culture before.”
Amid the industrial revolution, how Britons ate changed dramatically as we moved from villages to cities. We started importing more food, and eating meals prepared by others like street vendors.
Since the 1980s, Britain’s reputation for terrible food internationally has also fallen away and we now have one of the best restaurant cultures in the Western world.
“We’ve had an incredible culinary renaissance. We’ve better restaurants than the French now,” Dimbleby adds.
Japan’s famous cuisine only really came into existence when the nation opened up to the West and taboos around the eating of meat were dropped. So, societal attitudes to food can shift dramatically.
“We need to intervene with fiscal measures and regulation to make the bad stuff less bad, but we also have to look at the longer-term game where we start cooking more from scratch,” Dimbleby says. “It’s possible, it’s not pie in the sky.”
The key fix here is to teach all children from pre-school up not just to appreciate good, healthy food, but how to cook for themselves. In Scotland, teaching unions have warned that home economics is “at serious risk of disappearing” in schools.
Dimbleby helped create the UK Government’s “School Food Plan” for England, but the execution was miserably poor. The UK’s four governments need to “make schools take food seriously”. School inspections should increase their focus on cookery so head teachers know they’re being measured.
Britain must also lead by example internationally. Dimbleby says he was “pissed off” with the trade deal Liz Truss boasted of with Australia. “She negotiated possibly the worst trade deal in trade deal negotiation history,” he says. It removed tariffs on Australian goods without asking anything from the Australian farming industry. Australian beef, he notes, has a much higher carbon footprint that its British counterpart. Rainforests have been “pulled down”.
How can the UK talk about sustainable farming, Dimbleby says, when asking nothing from the Australian farming industry as part of the trade deal? Any conditions put in place were “so little they were like asking the Swiss to reduce the size of their navy”.
DIMBLEBY quit his government post to be able to make such comments. When he began writing Ravenous, his civil service adviser suggested it “would be easier to talk openly outside government. She was right”. He didn’t feel he “could make a fuss publicly” while working for the government. “The best way to achieve change was to speak outside the tent,” he adds.
Dimbleby is scathing of how the UK Government responded to his recommendations on improving the food industry. There’s been “no action” on a sugar and salt tax, and government “reneged on its promise” to restrict junk-food advertising.
When it comes to improved use of farmland it has been either “well behind schedule”, made “little visible progress”, or just “not [been] done”. On creating a shift in food culture the picture is much the same with government either providing “insufficient” funds, not giving the “political backing required to make meaningful change”, or simply made “no progress”.
A “10-year battle” is required to get the policies in place to fix our relationship with food. But he’s optimistic. A decade ago, many regularly doubted climate change, he notes.
Today, anyone holding that view is simply “an outlier”. It was telling that Chris Whitty, the UK Government’s chief medical adviser, gave a public lecture on obesity at the height of pandemic, he says.
ONE big stumbling block is the food industry’s “pernicious” lobbying of government, “casting just enough doubt to slow down” change. Dimbleby adds: “Politicians need to realise this isn’t a vote loser. People want a government with the balls to intervene.”
Change is unlikely to be resisted by supermarkets as they will just sell what the public want. It’s the big, processed food giants flogging cheap and dangerous junk that stand in the way – especially when it comes to meat.
Realigning the food industry needs a 30% cut in meat consumption by 2030, Dimbleby believes.
That equates to cutting out meat twice a week – the equivalent, he says, to a meatball per day. “But it’s incredibly political charged. Focus groups where we talked about meat got pretty punchy pretty quickly.”
Government measures like a meat tax would be “disastrous”, though. It would outrage people and also hike the price of cheaper meat like mince more than expensive cuts like steak.
We can partly offset the harmful effects of meat farming with smarter use of land, “methane reduction technology” and tackling nitrogen in fertiliser, but the silver bullet is cheap “alternative protein” that’s crucially tasty. Plant-based alternatives to meat are “increasing massively”, Dimbleby says. However, lab-grown meat will always remain too expensive, he believes.
As soon as the plant-based alternatives become cheaper, “you’ll see a large swathe of the meat market just go”.
The Saatchi advertising group is now working pro bono with Dimbleby on creating major campaigns making the idea of eating less meat “cool”, shifting away form the “hippy in sandals” stereotype. “We need a complete psychological shift,” he adds.
BUT isn’t this all a middle-class concern? Dimbleby is a wealthy man. He disagrees: “The only people who say it’s a middle-class concern are the middle class.” People on low incomes want to eat well and feed their children good food. He has visited women’s refuges and foodbanks, and heard universal demand for good, cheap, healthy food. “This is a mainstream concern for people of all incomes.”
Dimbleby and his family have changed their diet, eating beans as a protein often to replace meat.
However, he admits that even as a trained chef, it’s a steep learning curve to develop interesting vegetarian recipes for everyday meals.
Isn’t he open to a more damning criticism, though? His Leon restaurant chain was sold to the company that owns Asda for £100 million. Is he part of the problem?
He sees that as a classic deflection: blaming anyone who comes up with ideas for change as self-interested “bad faith actors”.
It was his work in the restaurant trade which galvanised his belief that we must change how we eat. “It made me obsessed with the junk-food cycle,” Dimbleby says.
“And when you sell your business, you sell your business. I’m not sure what else I was supposed to do.”
https://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/23428951.appetite-destruction-miracle-cheap-food-killing-us/?ref=rss Appetite for destruction: How ‘miracle’ of cheap food is killing us