01 Oct 2019

“If we want to achieve meaningful improvements in the sustainability of our food system, we need to see change from the top down and the bottom up”

Henry Dimbleby was appointed lead non-executive board member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in March 2018. He’s the co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain and also co-founder and Director of The Sustainable Restaurant Association and of London Union, which runs some of London’s most successful street food markets. He also co-authored The School Food Plan in 2013, which set out actions to transform what children eat in schools and how they learn about food.

He will be speaking at a Food Matters Summit session exploring why innovation is the key to changing global diets for the better.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background in the food industry?

I’m lucky to be amongst the one in eight people in this country who works within our food system and I’ve been working in it on and off for 25 years. After university, I trained as a commis chef under Bruno Loubet at the Michelin starred Inn on the Park, before drifting into journalism and them management consultancy, where I met John Vincent (my Leon co-founder). John and I would spend many hours on the road visiting clients and picking up stale sandwiches and greasy fast food at service stations along the way. It was on one of these trips that we concocted the idea of starting a chain of fast food restaurants that served good food, that was good for you. This is how Leon was born. In 2002 I quit my job and decided to learn on the job how to run and scale a food business. We made so many mistakes. But we also did good things we wouldn’t have done if we were experts.

As Leon was continuing to expand, John and I were asked by Government to carry out a review of school food and look at ways in which it could be improved. This led to the development of the School Food Plan, which I am so proud of. The plan set out 17 actions to transform what children eat in schools and how they learn about food. We secured the full backing of Government for our recommendations, which included the introduction of new School Food Standards, compulsory cooking lessons on the curriculum for every child up to the age of 14, and universal infant free school meals.

I left Leon in John’s very capable hands in 2014 and founded London Union with Street Feast’s Jonathan Downey. It’s our mission to take derelict and unloved spaces and transform them into buzzing street food markets, giving talented new food entrepreneurs the opportunity to start and develop their business without requiring huge amounts of capital. Our markets now attract more than 2 million visitors every year.

Alongside these endeavours I’ve been a long-time champion and Director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association and in 2018 I co-founded a new charity, Chefs in Schools with Nicole Pisani, with an aim of getting 100 professional, restaurant-trained chefs working in 100 schools by 2023.

In March 2018 I was appointed lead non-executive board member of Defra and earlier this year the then Secretary of State, Michael Gove, asked me to lead an independent review into our food system. My review, which is currently under way, will inform the first National Food Strategy we have had for over 75 years.

Where do you begin with such a mammoth undertaking?

I start from a privileged position, in that there is near consensus that something needs to change and that the current system is not sustainable. There is a wealth of talent, energy and ideas coming from across the food system, but the challenge is that the different parts of the system have not been joined up before.

I am approaching this from a whole system perspective and working with some brilliant brains, to look at the best available evidence of what works. The review will be built on rigorous evidence and analysis; but the answers to some of the most important questions cannot be mathematically calculated. What do we want our countryside to look like? As our understanding of animal sentience increases, how should we prioritise the welfare of livestock? What role should the government play to protect us from our “bad” dietary choices?

These are not questions that I – or indeed the government – can answer alone. So, I will be creating a Citizens’ Assembly: a large panel of citizens, randomly selected, but balanced to reflect the demographics of the nation. This assembly will listen to testimony from experts, debate the issues and advise us on their findings. We will then combine the science with the insights and value judgments of our assemblies, to inform our review and recommendations.

This is the first Food Matters Summit - how important is it for people to come together and explore new ideas and ways of thinking especially around sustainability?

It’s vital. No part of our economy matters more than food. It is vital for life, and for pleasure. It shapes our sense of family, community and nation.

Our free market performs a million daily miracles, producing, exporting, importing, processing and serving up a dazzling variety of reasonably-priced foods in an abundance unimaginable to previous generations. But this bounty has come at a cost. Intensive farming practises have caused serious damage to the environment and the food related disease is costing the NHS billions and drastically harming the lives of millions. Food security, too, is a growing concern: population growth, climate change, the global increase in meat eating are intensifying resource competition between nations.

We need to come together, through events like the Food Matters Summit, to explore new ideas and share our understanding of what is working well, at home or abroad, that we can learn from.

You're speaking at a session exploring why innovation is the key to changing global diets for the better - can you give us a brief insight into your key messages?

We know that the way we currently consume is not sustainable, for our health and for our planet, so we need to think differently about the way we grow and eat food. To ensure our food system delivers safe, healthy, affordable food and restores and enhances the natural environment for the next generation, we have to be innovative. From alternative proteins, to vertical farming, there is much to be optimistic about. As part of the independent review underpinning the National Food Strategy, we will be looking at the best innovations from around the world, to inform our approach.

As the co-founder of Leon and the Sustainable Restaurant Association do you think it is possible for small businesses and restaurants to make a difference to sustainability or does the impetus have to come at a national or international level?

If we want to achieve meaningful improvements in the sustainability of our food system, we need to see change from the top down and the bottom up. At the national level, we need to set the right incentives… which is what the National Food Strategy is all about. But we also need to inform and inspire citizens, businesses and corporations to step up and take responsibility too.

Register for Food Matters Summit on 19 and 20 November at ExCeL at www.foodmatters.co.uk/summit