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Storytelling: Demystify complex food systems to create lasting change

Article-Storytelling: Demystify complex food systems to create lasting change

Henry Dimbleby-storytelling.jpg
The food system is ‘malfunctioning’: food produced unsustainably and an overconsumption of junk food are severely damaging the planet and human health, says food policy expert Henry Dimbleby. Powerful storytelling along with government policy and community action are key to creating lasting change within complex food systems, he says.

After resigning from his role as non-executive board member at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in 2023, Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of healthy restaurant chain Leon, released the book, Ravenous: How to get ourselves and our planet into shape.

Commissioned by the government to launch the national food strategy in 2019, Dimbleby was convinced the readership for his findings would be limited and decided to turn the policy proposal into a book.

“Part of the way in which you change complex systems is by explaining how they work and telling that story, and then you also need government action, policy, and action in communities. Unless people understand the story, you're not going to get change,” Dimbleby said, addressing food and drink industry members at the Future Summit by Bread and Jam in May.

The story of an unsustainable food system is not new

Ravenous opens with “a story of extraordinary human ingenuity and […] how we got the food system we have today”.

Dimbleby references American agronomist, Norman Ernest Borlaug, who pioneered the green revolution, which resulted in a significant increase in the production of wheat and rice. At a similar time, around the end of the Second World War, scientists predicted radical change was needed to feed an expanding population in the coming years.

“Despite all the bloodshed, there were [2.5 billion people] on the planet at the time. Scientists projected over the next 50 years, that population would rise up to eight, to 10 billion people […] and they said ‘we are not going to be able to feed those people’,” said Dimbleby.

“We now feed 8 billion people, about twice the number of calories that we've fed to 2.5 billion people. We produce off the same area of land […] I draw quite a lot of hope from Borlaug in that we know we have had problems in the food system before and we know that we can resolve them.”

Food production both dominates and damages the environment

Pointing to a chart during his talk ‘How can food & drink businesses get our planet into shape?’ Dimbleby asked the audience to consider the “weight of all of the animals on the land” and how food production negatively impacts the environment.

“This [chart] shows 10,000 BC which was the beginning of the Holocene, the period of state decline that allowed agriculture to develop, where we could predict the seasons. There were about 2.5 million people represented by that small blue dot, completely overwhelmed by the number of wild animals […] Fast forward the clock to today, we now have 8 billion people and the population of wild animals, has shrunk hugely,” said Dimbleby.

Today, the domesticated animals, horses, dogs and cats, are almost equal in number to wild animals whilst animals bred for food outnumber all, weighing twice as much as all of the humans and twenty times as much as all of the wild animals.

“If we were to reduce the amount of meat we ate by 30%, it would have a completely transformational effect on the way in which we use land.”

The role agriculture plays in disrupting the environment is significant, said Dimbleby. The future is “frightening”, he added. Climate change, exacerbated by the food system, is predicted to create even warmer temperatures, longer growth seasons, changes in wheat yields and areas like the Mekong Delta, the biggest exporter of rice in the world, will descend under sea level.  

“It is no surprise that agriculture is by far the biggest cause of biodiversity loss. It is by far the biggest cause of deforestation, of water pollution, of water scarcity and after energy, it's the second biggest cause of climate change.

“It creates about 20 to 30% of greenhouse gases annually. That fact means that actually the food system, in some ways, the way we produce food, is putting at risk the way in which we produce food”, said Dimbleby.

Poor agricultural practice leads to waste and, inevitably, harms the environment, according to Dimbleby.

 “[…] we are incredibly wasteful in the way in which we use our land. We're not only wasteful because we throw away about a quarter of the food that we grow, we are wasteful because of the way in which we grow.  Not only in terms of a lot of inefficient farming, but also in terms of the kind of food that we eat.”

The ‘bad stuff’ has overwhelmed the food system

The food system is not only destroying the environment but our health and is “by some margin, the biggest cause of non-communicable disease”, said Dimbleby.

“The reason that we're getting sick is because we have an appetite that evolved in a world where calories were scarce. The dopamine responses that we get from eating calorie-dense, high in fat and sugar [foods] are extraordinary.”

Leading the national food strategy, Dimbleby proposed targets such as a 30% reduction in meat and dairy consumption and a tax on salt and sugar in processed foods to the government. The project aimed to transform the way the UK produces, sources, and consumes food to improve health.

A “junk food cycle” fuelled by food companies is partly responsible for poor health outcomes in the country. The confectionery market in the UK is worth £3.9 billion a year and trumps the £2.2 billion a year fruit and vegetable market.

“The food industry has spent more and more money creating products, marketing and selling this food to us. We've eaten more. They've sold more and we have become sick. And if you look at the portfolios at the top seven processed food companies, 85% of the products they sell are deemed too unhealthy by the World Health Organization to market to children.”