Ravenous is a barnstorming, searing, wholly brilliant book about the UK’s food system, written by Henry Dimbleby and Jemima Lewis (husband and wife, as well as co-authors). Dimbleby is the ex-management consultant turned founder of Leon restaurants who led the government’s National Food Strategy review. Lewis is a journalist and former editor of The Week, and, as chief writer, promised herself that no sentence in the book would be incomprehensible to a thoughtful 12-year-old.

The result is a compelling but relatively short book that encompasses the key issues faced by the UK and global food systems. The chapters are clear and well-argued and span health, environment, animal welfare, economics, farmer livelihoods and more. I found much of the writing worthy of George Orwell and left the book feeling morally outraged by how we have configured a food system here, and globally, that is so clearly failing on multiple fronts. The book is a bracing, clear-sighted disquisition on this intricate and complex set of issues. It draws elegantly on the in-depth research and wide engagement that fed into the National Food Strategy, the key findings of which Boris Johnson infamously rejected on the day of its publication.

Much of the material in this book will be familiar to Resurgence & Ecologist readers. I found many of the sections powerful, but three things in particular resonated with me.

The first: the sheer economic cost to the Treasury – and therefore to the nation’s and our pockets – of our ill health and poor diet. It struck me how much this obesogenic environment is caused both by poor policy choices and by private sector lobbying, whether in the form of junk food in supermarkets, ‘buy two, get one free’ deals, or the sheer quantity of ultra-processed food being produced.

The second: the book describes in painstaking detail how the UK uses its land, and how much of the country’s surface we have given to sheep and cattle farming. It sets out a “three compartments model”, a necessarily stylised articulation of how and where our land might best be used. Some areas are allocated for intensive agricultural production, hopefully with lesser environmental impacts. Others are designated for land sharing, or an agro-ecological approach combining farmed landscapes and the natural environment. Others are reserved for Nature protection, restoration and rewilding. The framework focuses the mind and helps the reader think through diverse options and scenarios. It has also received pushback from some quarters for being reductive or difficult to implement.

The third: the reflections on animal welfare, and the awareness of animal suffering and what is involved in slaughter – a set of issues many of us wilfully overlook for much of the time. These issues – coupled with a sense of moral outrage about animal welfare standards in some countries with which we have sought to agree trade deals, such as Australia – are set out powerfully and effectively in the book. The authors conclude that, whichever way you cut the numbers, we must eat significantly less meat and really strive to ensure that the meat we do eat meets the highest possible ethical and environmental standards.

This book gives some insight into the political approach behind the National Food Strategy. It draws too on some of Dimbleby’s previously successful reforming efforts, such as school meals. It tackles head-on the notion that more progressive government engagement on these issues would somehow constitute the ‘nanny state’. In its close it offers a compelling blueprint for action. We can only hope that the next government adopts it as core to its manifesto with effect from 2024. The country – and the world – requires nothing less.

Edward Davey is Head of the World Resources Institute in the UK, and Partnerships Director of the Food and Land Use Coalition.

Ravenous: How to Get Ourselves and Our Planet Into Shape by Henry Dimbleby & Jemima Lewis. Profile Books, 2023. ISBN: 9781800816510.