Henry Dimbleby has worked at the intersection of food and sustainability for more than two decades. He authored the UK’s 2021 National Food Strategy, an independent assessment of the UK’s food system, and served as a non-executive director on the board of the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs between 2018 and 2023. A successful serial entrepreneur, Henry co-founded the restaurant chain Leon and more recently the investment firm Bramble Partners.

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Today’s global food system produces enough to feed everyone, but not everyone has enough food, or eats the right kind. How did we get to this point?

For me, the modern story starts after the second world war. The population was projected to grow from 2.8 billion to 8 billion over 50 years. Newspaper headlines were full of Malthusian predictions of hunger and resource wars. Thanks to Normal Borlaugh, the most important person nobody knows about, those predictions never came true.

A botanist by trade, the Rockefeller Foundation sent him to Mexico in the 1940s to improve their agricultural system. Through stubbornness and luck, he cross-bred a short-stem Japanese variety of wheat with other varieties to create a new high-yield, disease resistant strain. Alongside other advances, such as synthetic fertilizers and irrigation techniques, Mexico went from importing 60% of its wheat in 1944, to self-sufficiency in a decade. Borlaugh was the father of the Green Revolution. 

Did the Green Revolution create new challenges?

Producing food is by far the biggest cause of biodiversity collapse, water pollution and shortages, and soil erosion. After energy, it is the biggest cause of climate change.

Synthetic fertilizers are responsible for 2% of global emissions. Climate change will impact where and how food can be grown, taking us back to a 1940s situation where there are fears of resource wars and mass migration. On the health side, the food we produce is the biggest cause of avoidable ill health globally. It costs the UK economy over GBP 100bn a year. By 2035, Type 2 diabetes is expected to cost the UK health system more than cancer does today.

How do you think about sustainability and food security?

Food security cannot be decoupled from sustainability.

Take climate; there is cause and effect in both directions. Producing food leads to emissions, while a changing climate affects where and how food can grow. Biodiversity is much more complicated. It is difficult to measure, and how we depend on it is also hard to grasp. I think the global community is taking this more seriously. Whereas food was backstage at previous COPs, it was center stage at the most recent, COP 28.

How do we balance producing enough food with reducing emissions, while leaving space for nature?

Solving this equation requires a 3-compartment-model. First, we need more wild land; second, we need farmland with intentionally lower yields and room for nature to thrive, such as on organic farms. Finally, we need intensive farming that uses far fewer inputs, so called sustainable intensification.

This does not mean ‘bad for the environment’—even the most intensive farming can incorporate elements of ‘regenerative farming’, such as no till or cover crops.

Is nutrition talked about enough?

The conversation is only beginning. In the UK’s National Food Strategy we talked about Ultra Processed Foods (UPF), and it has now exploded into the public consciousness. Humans have evolved to find their characteristics irresistible. High in sugar, salt, and fat, these foods have their water removed during processing, making them calorie dense. They are also soft and low in soluble fiber and thus don’t fill us up, so we eat even more, pushing up obesity rates. On the flip side, there is an issue of ‘hidden hunger’, where people get Type 2 diabetes without being overweight, due to high sugar consumption disrupting their insulin production.

Some have managed to stay away from UPFs. Spain and France consume around 15%, but it’s closer to 50% in the UK. The problems are spread across society, but generally they are focused on the poorest income brackets. 

In many developing countries there is this bifurcated problem, where the poorest face nutritional scarcity, but the richest suffer more from Western diet-related health conditions.

What is the best approach for governments to approach the agri-food transition?

One in seven people work in agriculture globally. It is around 12% of global gross domestic product. But top down, brute force policies will not work. They alienate farmers, at a time when there is already so much uncertainty with rising energy and fertilizer costs. The recent farming protests are evidence for this.

For me, the fix is to convince farmers it is in their interest to change. I think more countries should adopt the UK’s Environmental Land Management scheme, which ties public farming subsidies to the provision of public goods. 

Should we be eating less meat?

We need to eat less meat. From a climate perspective, most think this is to reduce methane, but the primary reason is land use. The UK’s National Food Strategy concluded we only need to reduce meat consumption by 30% to hit climate goals. I think this is reasonable, but our polling shows this is an area where the UK public dislikes government intervention. This is where food companies can do some powerful work. I think they could reduce our meat consumption by a third without many consumers noticing. 

Is there a significant role for companies in promoting health?

I think companies can’t do much to change our love of junk food. The commercial incentive to sell us food that we love is too strong. But food companies can do a lot on the environmental side. Farming is such a small component of the price of food that companies face a small commercial threat from encouraging producers to act more sustainably.

What are some promising, and not so promising, solutions?

There is so much innovation going on. But the two big areas that are not living up to expectations are vertical farming, and alternative proteins. These technologies will play a role in the future, but I think people initially misunderstood the economics. 

What is the role of capital providers in advancing sustainable food systems?

Regulation needs to kick off the transition, but when it does, capital needs to flow to businesses that are positioned to capture profits. Really, it is good old-fashioned capital doing what it does—helping companies get to profitability, move down cost curves, and open new markets.

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