In the last few days, there’s been a lot of discussion about the latest instalment of the The National Food Strategy. Commissioned in 2019 by the Government, and put together by Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of Leon, it contains radical proposals as to how to tackle the nation’s obesity rates.
Some of its most controversial suggestions are that we need salt and sugar taxes, that the NHS should prescribe vegetables and everyone should eat less meat. Hardly anyone likes the last idea, but libertarians have been vexed by the whole strategy – viewing it as the latest example of the nanny state gone mad.
Having combed through Dimbleby’s report (the second of a two-part strategy – intended to shape legislation in England, but also recommended for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), it seems to me that much of the criticism has been unfair.
For starters, the document is 289 pages in length, so it’s a little ungenerous to write it off in one day. The reactions reminded me of when members of the Left immediately dismissed the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, which is 258 pages, on the basis of a few passages.
Some of the stereotypes about Dimbleby, too – that he’s a rich bloke, like Jamie Oliver, telling us plebs what to do – don’t add up, especially in the context of the report. Far from being bossy, large parts of it are about nature and ecosystems. And where it makes recommendations about food, it acknowledges the challenges for those on low incomes, whom it advises the Government to support more.
On a more serious note, the report has not come about because rich blokes have run out of hobbies. It’s an attempt to tackle a complex but devastating issue: the UK’s rising obesity rates. It points out that one in three people over 45 in England are now deemed clinically obese. You have to wonder sometimes if we have desensitised to these facts and our situation, despite all the warning signs (as the report points out, “[o]ur obesity problem has been a major factor in the UK’s tragically high death rate” from Covid-19).
There are many other things you could say about this report, but for the sake of one article, I have one question: what is the libertarian answer to obesity rates? Because at the moment it appears to be “do nothing” or sneer at the baddies who want to take away our Kellogg’s Cornflakes. Dimbleby and Oliver may not have the perfect answers, but what is our solution exactly?
I count myself as fairly libertarian, incidentally, but obesity is an area that challenges this philosophy. That’s because scientists have increasingly found that weight has a heritable component, meaning people have differing levels of willpower with diets. As the report spells out: “not all appetites are the same… in an environment where calories are easy to come by, some of us need to work much harder than others to maintain a healthy weight. You have to swim against the powerful current of your appetite.”
This corroborates with findings from Robert Plomin, one of the world’s leading experts in behavioural genetics, and author of the book Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are. He points out that: “Twin studies estimate heritability of weight as 80 per cent, even though all the genetic data together estimate heritability as 70 per cent.”
In short, people are on different starting points when it comes to how easily they can control their weight (and I say that as someone who has to swim hard against the current), hence why telling someone to use willpower doesn’t always work.
Genes are uncharted territory for libertarians because all of our arguments centre around personal responsibility, free will and individual choice. Of course, these are all important things and many of us reject how much lockdown has taken them away. But there’s a big difference between politicians telling people to wear masks, and how people cope in an environment that encourages overeating, which our society does, especially should they have a predisposition to gain weight. We have to make those distinctions.
Even if we ignore research on genes – some people will say that my argument is fatalistic, wrong and that choice is paramount – it’s here and has already been embedded into public policy. Since 2019, the NHS has sold people genetic tests to spot risk for cancers and dementia. People underestimate how easily these tests can be extended into completely new areas (a test to estimate your risk for obesity), which could then be used to justify preventative measures.
While Dimbleby mentions genes creating differences in eating habits, it’s interesting that the report doesn’t delve much into medicine’s role in addressing obesity rates. Yes, the NHS could prescribe vegetables. But we have also seen drugs developed to help prevent obesity, and even a contraption that stops people’s mouths opening properly.
While I find the latter a rather horrible prospect, I think drugs and other medical solutions (gastric bands, for instance) will become more common and less controversial in years to come – the more we test the “willpower argument”, sugar tax, and move very little on obesity rates.
Ultimately, I don’t think The National Food Plan will make any substantial difference, as – shock, horror – it’s not radical enough. It’s also overly romantic in places, suggesting that school cooking lessons are part of the answer (as someone who did Home Economics for two years, I can’t remember any of the recipes. Boys messing around, however…).
But the report gets it right about environmental triggers and how these correspond with genes. And it has, at least, drawn attention to the urgent situation we are in. A situation to which the libertarian response cannot continue to be – as it seems currently – “let them eat cake”.