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Book Review: Ravenous by Henry Dimbleby, Jemima Lewis

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‘How to Get Ourselves and our Planet into Shape’ 

In 2021 Henry Dimbleby published the National Food Strategy which he’d been commissioned to research by the Government. I remember thinking that I must read it, but the thought of ploughing through a Government style report prevented me. Fortunately, this year he published a book, written in conjunction with a journalist, Jemima Lewis, that tells the story in a much more readable form. It is called ‘Ravenous’.   

The book considers a whole range of factors that affect our food and our health. He begins with the ‘Green Revolution’ brought about by using more productive seeds, pesticides and artificial fertiliser. This has allowed us to produce ten times the amount of food, globally, than was produced in 1920, using little more land to do it! During the same 100 years the world population has increased five-fold. 

Sadly, the costs of this revolution are now coming home to roost. They are the health crisis created by our Western diet which has made poor quality processed food cheaper than fresh food; the environmental damage caused by intensive agriculture; the need to restore biodiversity including the health of our soil; and the need to use our land to fight climate change. All these challenges have been made worse by Covid, the war in Ukraine; and in Britain, by Brexit. 

Henry then explains the role that systems play in amplifying the problems in a way that makes it hard to identify simple solutions. He describes how reinforcing feedback loops create vicious circles. So, for instance, the fact that food has become cheaper has invited us to eat more. This makes us fatter and therefore sadder; so, we eat even more to compensate, making us fatter still! True Foodies will be pleased to know that he also describes a virtuous circle where more people buy organic eggs. This increases investment in organic egg production lowering their cost, so that more people are encouraged to buy them! 

The fact that systems influence food production so much means that only Government intervention will produce the changes needed. Unfortunately, government responsibility for food policy in England is spread across 16 different departments, so achieving a consensus is nigh impossible! This paralysis is deepened further by our government’s commitment to minimum interference, allowing processed food manufacturers to persuade the government to do nothing!  

Government policy relies instead on educating people to change their eating habits. As we discovered with smoking, it needed a change in the law to make people change. This is especially true for those with lower incomes. As processed food is cheaper, it is hard to persuade those with little money to buy good food.  This is made worse by the absence in many ‘down-at-heel’ high streets of anything but fast food outlets!  

Henry admits to being embarrassed at his research’s major finding, namely our desire to eat meat! He, like me, enjoys eating meat despite its drawbacks. The basic problem is that rearing beef, sheep and even chickens require an awful lot of land. The animals need land on which to graze, but we also use immense tracts of land to grow food for them. Given that we desperately need to restore tracts of land to become bogs and forests to sequester carbon dioxide, and that we can’t keep using pesticides and artificial fertilisers without destroying life in our rivers and oceans, it is time to stop eating so much meat! 

He describes the horrific treatment experienced by many farmed animals; he points out how much climate warming gases they emit; and he notes how much more land is being used to graze and feed animals than is used for growing crops for human consumption. He tells us that for each of us to commit to two days a week without meat would free enough land to restore the balance required. 

He ends with a list of actions that need to implemented immediately. Most of these require government action, which we’ve seen is far from happening. He even explains that in his original report he omitted his proposal to ban fast food TV adverts before the 9pm watershed, because at the time the government was already committed to bringing that in. Since then, even this initiative has been shelved! 

Finally, he notes that while so many agree that the system needs to change, there is vehement disagreement as to how this should be done. He says that in discussions about the environment and sustainability people fall into one of two tribes. There are the ‘wizards’ who believe that science will come to the rescue, allowing economic growth to continue unimpeded; and there are the ‘prophets’ who believe we are living so far beyond the planet’s means that we must drastically reduce consumption, in order to survive. This has resulted in a dialogue of the deaf, which might be alright if we weren’t discussing the fate of our children! 

Francis Jakeman, Easter 2023.