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Food for thought

28 April, 2023

Good Business Book Club: Ravenous, by Henry Dimbleby 

The food we eat is killing us, and the planet. What should be a source of joy and sustenance is making us fat, burdening healthcare systems and harming the environment. Not a surprise: we know that ultra-processed food is bad for us, we know that there is an obesity pandemic, we know that modern farming practices contribute to carbon emissions and damage nature. But we don’t often stop and think about the connections between these issues, or consider that solving one of these challenges may mean addressing all of them.  

In 2019, Henry Dimbleby was asked by the government to produce a national food strategy that responded to the question of how we can feed ourselves affordably without destroying our own health and the health of the planet. The National Food Strategy, published in 2021, was widely considered to be a thoughtful and creative response to this question, and yet, in Dimbleby’s words, the government response in 2022 was not a strategy but a “handful of disparate policy ideas” chosen for the fact they are relatively uncontroversial. His new book, Ravenous, feels like a pointed response to this failure of imagination, going deep into the challenges and highlighting the connections between them, and setting out a way forward.  

That way forward isn’t simple. Changing systems is hard; changing a system as complex and essential as the food system, when there are so many players who have so much at stake, seems almost impossible. It needs regulation, so that companies who have already made significant voluntary changes aren’t penalised compared to their laggard competitors when consumers, conditioned by biology to seek high calorie food, exercise their right to choose. It needs innovation, and investment in education and support for people on low incomes, and creative policy responses and changes in land use.   

Ravenous is both broad and deep – topics range from overfishing, food poverty, crash diets, the impact of exercise and food waste to marketing and behaviour change, geopolitics and fake meat, and while it’s all meticulously referenced, it’s also covered lightly and with anecdotes and examples that make it a compelling read. And while you may have encountered a lot of what is covered elsewhere, you are unlikely to have read anything that joins the dots so clearly and effectively, or which will give you quite so much food for thought.

By Claire Jost

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