Henry Dimbleby

Fixing our broken food system may seem like an impossibly tall political order, even for an incoming government with the kind of majority projected for Labour. Angry protests by European and Welsh farmers have shown how perilous environmental reforms can be.

And many politicians in this country have a deep, instinctive fear of interfering in what people eat. They know from past experience that any food-related policy changes will provoke cries of “nanny state”, along with fierce resistance from industry lobbyists. And they worry that introducing legislation or taxation to change the behaviour of manufacturers might push up food prices – which would be especially dangerous in a cost of living crisis.

On the other hand, we are reaching the kind of tipping point that makes political action both necessary and possible. The dysfunctional outcomes of the food system are becoming more obvious to voters – and, critically, the Treasury. Poor diet is by far the biggest cause of premature death and illness in this country, costing the national economy almost £100bn in lost productivity and spiralling health costs.

It is one of the major reasons why a record 2.8 million people in this country are off sick from work. Treasury officials are rightly and increasingly alarmed by the impact of dietary ill health on the national coffers. Labour will not be successful in its NHS or economic growth mission if it does not tackle diet.

Meanwhile, the global environmental crisis is gathering pace. Crop yields are increasingly being affected by unpredictable weather patterns, depleted soil and extreme events such as droughts and floods. There is a dreadful irony to this. The modern industrial food system is the single biggest cause of biodiversity collapse, fresh water shortage and soil degradation, and the second biggest cause of climate change (after the fossil fuel industry). The way we eat is imperilling the way we eat.

The UK is uniquely well placed to kickstart change in our food system. We already have the most progressive farming regulation in the world – the Future Farming programme provides a strong conceptual framework to build on. We are also the world’s fourth-largest importer of food, which means we are in a position to demand high food standards when we trade with other countries. And we have the world’s largest nationalised healthcare system, with a correspondingly huge bank of health data. This will enable us to measure in detail and at scale the success (or failure) of any government interventions on food and diets.

In Whitehall, too, the foundations for change have been laid. Defra, which was once a political backwater, has been rejuvenated over the past six years, and is now one of the strongest performing of all government departments. The team of civil servants running the Future Farming programme are the best of the best, the Jedi High Council of the civil service.

There is – if I say so myself – a well-evidenced, thoroughly costed and comprehensive plan ready for action, in the form of the 2021 National Food Strategy (which I led). But because responsibility for the food system falls across multiple departments, any reforms will have to be led by No 10. It will need the energy and centralising authority of the PM to bring all the other departments into line. And he will have to act fast, before political entropy sets in.

The PM should throw his weight behind the Future Farming programme, while ensuring its implementation is sensitive and alert to unintended consequences. The various farmer uprisings on the Continent were all sparked by clumsy, if well-meaning, environmental policies. (In Germany, for example, the government attempted to end tax relief on agricultural diesel – right in the middle of a fuel price crisis.)

To maintain our food security in an increasingly unstable world, food production levels will have to be maintained, at the same time as meeting carbon and biodiversity targets. This can be done, but it will require dexterity. What happens when you intervene in a complex system is, by its nature, unpredictable.

New policies will be needed on health. At the top of the PM’s to-do list, I would like to see restrictions on junk food advertising and promotion, which have already been legislated for but endlessly delayed. Contrary to tabloid alarmism, a sugar and salt tax on food manufacturers – designed to encourage businesses to reformulate their recipes – would not increase the cost of food at the till. (Except for one or two products, such as value jam, which contain almost nothing but sugar.)

But I accept the optics are tricky. Until the cost of living comes down, this may be an impossible argument to win. In the meantime, we should have stronger, South American-style labelling of HFSS/UPFs. The government should roll out community Eatwell schemes, which prescribe fruit and veg to those living in poverty, nationally. It should expand Healthy Start and free school meals. It should also push ahead with mandatory reporting by large food companies on the volumes of HFSS goods they sell.

One more reason for optimism: changing the food system is not just the responsibility of politicians. Already, there are scientists, farmers and entrepreneurs devising new ways to produce healthier, more sustainable food. Their methods range from high-tech innovations, such as weed-spotting drones or soilless vertical farms, to more traditional models of nature-friendly agriculture.

Meanwhile, AI is about to revolutionise our understanding of some of nature’s most complex systems, including the links between the soil microbiome, agricultural productivity, nutritional density, the gut microbiome, the immune system and even mental health. Given its ability to see patterns in massive data sets, AI will be to biology what calculus was to physics – transforming both our understanding of the world and the tools we devise in order to thrive within it.

The transition is underway, and will keep gathering pace. As long as the right regulation is in place, private investment will pour into sustainable food businesses. The old incumbents in the system will need to change their ways if they are to hold their own against the innovators. For some this will be their Kodak moment – once great businesses broken on the back of new technology. But there will be many more businesses that will thrive.

I was told by a group of schoolchildren the other day that nothing could fix the food system. They were depressed by the landscape of junk food and industrial agriculture in which they live, but also resigned to it. I told them that when I was young, it seemed normal to smoke on the Tube. Change always feels impossible – until it happens.