Henry Dimbleby – From designing the National Food Strategy for England to starting a £50M fund focussed on food transition

A wide range conversation of almost two hours with Henry Dimbleby, founder of Bramble Partners, a venture capital firm, that invests in businesses seeking to improve food security. Before Bramble Partners, Henry co-founded Leon Restaurants and the Sustainable Restaurant Association and also served deep in the heart of the UK government as he was appointed lead non-executive board member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

In this exchange we discuss everything from Donella Meadows in complex systems to what that means for all of us trying to influence these systems and policies and how you actually change policy. How it was to manage the COVID crisis from within the UK government, keeping food on the shelves of the supermarkets and local shops, and trying to drastically improve school meals and their accessibility for children living in poverty in the UK. Plus, a deep dive into the junk food cycle, the differences between ultra-processed food and junk food, and the crazy ultra-processed food addiction we all, or mostly, have fallen victim to.


In the second part where we dive deep into biodiversity and why it is not on the balance sheet, what to farm where and why and the technology needed. Henry makes a strong case for reducing our protein consumption (mostly meat and dairy) and how to do that, and the potential role of precision fermentation. We explore the role of technology, how computing power, machine learning and AI can give us much more insights. We discuss the potential role and risks of gene editing, the recent farmers riots. And, finally, we go to the financial side: why Henry started a £50M fund, how would he invest 1 billion pounds and, of course, the magic wand question!



During his period as member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Henry worked with chefs and schools to transform cooking and food education and later to create the National Food Strategy.

”In my mind, regulations are really important, the cultural changes too, and any vision of a better food system has as part of it, children, teachers eating together in school, eating good food, and cooking. […] Over about three years, we worked out how to do it because it is tough. You know, anyone who’s a parent knows that. Cooking good food for children and getting them to eat it is not easy. […] We set up a charity for chefs in schools, and we now help schools transform their cookery and their food education.” Henry Dimbleby

”I was asked to create the National Food Strategy, which was a two-year piece of work. I had a team of 20; we had a budget for consultants; we did citizen dialogues all over the country; it was a massive piece of work. It wasn’t until then that it really cemented the urgency that I felt for transforming the food system.” Henry Dimbleby


Henry explains how understanding system dynamics can help address issues in food systems.

”One of the few forms of science that’s come from business into biology is this study of system dynamics because, what you notice with complex systems in any walk of life, the mathematics of them are similar and they break down in similar ways. And what you need to do, rather than just say, oh my god, this is really complicated, is identify the feedback loops that are going wrong in the food system. Luckily, there are two feedback loops that are going so badly wrong, that we concluded that any policy effort has to try and fix those.” Henry Dimbleby


The modern food system prioritises unhealthy options over healthy ones.

One was the junk food cycle. You can look at the science of this: we have an appetite that evolved a long time ago, at a time when foods were scarce. And we get a disproportionate amount of pleasure from eating foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat. Our body wants us to go out and climb the tree to get the honey, get the beehive down, and get stings. It wants us to go out and risk life and limb to kill an animal that’s got fat on it, because that is the nutrition stuff, and that will give us a competitive advantage.” Henry Dimbleby

”And when those foods are largely two things that are only rarely the case in modern foods, one is low in water and calorie dense because most processed food has gotten one of the most taken out of it. The other is low in insoluble fibre. They fill us up less; we eat more, and food companies know this; we eat more. They spend more and more money, and we eat more. They spend more, and we get sick. About 85% of the products produced by the big, fast- moving consumer companies are too unhealthy to market to children. In the UK, we spend 2.2 billion pounds a year on fresh fruit and vegetables and 3.9 billion pounds a year on confectionery on sweets, which is one reason this stuff has completely overtaken the food system.” Henry Dimbleby


Henry discusses how ultra-processed foods dominate the food system, with negative impacts on society.

”The framing of it is that junk food in our cultures is kind of a slightly guilty treat. It’s a naughty little thing. Let’s have a cheeky McDonald’s. And so, we feel, ‘Well, it’s our fault because junk food and we love it, and all we’re a bit naughty about, let’s do it.’ Ultra- processed food. Although the mechanisms are the same, as I’ve just described, they reveal, I think, a fundamental political truth or kind of framing truth, which is that it’s not a cheeky thing. It is the system that is the man fucking with you. It is those big companies for the profit motive, destroying the health of large swathes of society. And that’s why I think our ultra process is really cut through because it’s no longer Oh, it’s cheap junk food. It’s, oh my god, this is what these people are doing to us.” Henry Dimbleby


Nature is invisible in economic measurements, with $500 billion in subsidies annually supporting activities harming the environment.

”Governments globally give subsidies to a value of $500 billion a year to activities that destroy nature, the three largest ones being fossil fuel companies, fishing companies, and industrial agricultural companies. And those subsidies cause 4 to $6 trillion of damage to nature.
So, as we all know, if you give something as a free resource, people will consume it and produce things from it,
we’re actually giving a negative value to nature.
We’re paying people to destroy it.”

Henry Dimbleby

”So, in many ways, that’s good news, because there’s a very clear feedback loop that’s going wrong. And it is within the state’s purview; you don’t have this complicated thing of a biologically evolved appetite making this more complicated; the state can simply change the way that it regulates farming. And theoretically, there are three things that it has to do. First of all, it has to set a target for biodiversity net gain; it is not enough to stop destroying biodiversity where it is; we need significantly to increase it if we’re going to create resilient ecological systems. The second thing once you’ve set that target is to make it come into being by paying public money for public goods. So, for those goods for which there’s no private market for biodiversity, clean water, and so forth, you actually pay people to deliver those goods. And then the third thing is that you introduce a polluter pays principle. So, you charge people for the harm they do to nature, which in the end stops them either enables you to clear up the harm or stops them doing that thing.” Henry Dimbleby


Koen and Henry also talked about:

  • What should we grow where and why? 
  • The invisibility of nature, why is biodiversity not on the balance sheet?
  • Why regen isn’t anti science
  • The case for reducing our animal protein (mostly meat and dairy) and how to do that, and the potential role of precision fermentation.
  • The role of technology, how computing power, machine learning and AI can give us much more insights.
  • The potential role and risks of gen editing, the recent farmers riots
  • Why did Henry start a 50m fund?




Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.

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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.

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