1.1 billion? The Peas Please Project in proportion

The Food Foundation’s Please Project Report 2023 is misleading. And here’s why.

They have used big numbers to make three points, under the misleading title ‘Key Stats’. But they aren’t ‘stats’:

“Big numbers always look big. Single numbers on their own are misleading and should make you suspicious. Always look for comparisons. Ideally, divide by something.” (1)

Single numbers on their own are misleading and should make you suspicious. Always look for comparisons . . .

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Part 1: So let’s compare these big numbers:

  • 1.1 billion additional portions of veg since 2017.
    • How many portions were sold in 2017?
      Assuming the following two sets of figures giving us info about veg consumed:

      • The average (mean) consumption of fruit and vegetables for adults and children was 3.7 portions a day. (2)
      • And that two-thirds of these were vegetables, (3) that’s an average of 2.5 veg portions. (4)
    • In 2017, the UK population was 66 million.
      • 66m times 2.5 times 365 = 60,250,000,000; i.e. 60.25 billion portions.
    • Over six years, this adds up to 361.50 billion portions of veg, assuming the population remained static.

A 1.1 billion increase is 0.3%, i.e. statistically insignificant, even without the 1.7m (2.5%) population increase in the UK. (5)

  • We can (and should!) make comparisons with the two other ‘key stats’ figures to give usefully informative statistical info:
    • 1.5 million children who have taken part in Veg Power’s school programme comprise 14.6% of the school population. (6)
    • The 660,843 people who have been ‘reached through the Veg Cities campaign’ is just under 1% of the whole UK population. (7)

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Part 2: Three reasons why the Food Foundation should take a different approach

1: Reputational damage
Presenting numbers in this way is bad science, (8) and threatens the Food Foundation’s reputation. It could damage its much respected Food Insecurity Tracker.

Of course people get things wrong from time to time. But only by acknowledging it can your reputation be saved.

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2: Getting value for money
There’s nothing wrong in setting up a project and it results in failure as the evidence suggests in this case.

In addition to ethical considerations regarding covering up failure and misleading people, it is wasteful, too, if that failure isn’t acknowledged. (9)

For only by acknowledging failure can you — and everyone else, learn where to focus any future work.

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3: It distracts from what needs to be done
And that’s where the ‘everyone else’ comes in. Humanity is facing huge, potentially catastrophic challenges. (10)

All of the above is a distraction from what the conversation should be about.

We can act differently, we can build a future in which future generations of people will thrive.

But only by facing reality. And great chunk of that means getting relevant data in proportion. (11)

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(1) From the summary of Chapter 5 (The size instinct) in Factfulness by Hans Rosling.  (A summary of this chapter is here.)

(2) It’s proved difficult for us to find recent stats about veg consumption. These are from a 2018 NHS survey, the best we could find.

(3) A reasonable assumption? The ideal diet comprises 10 (yes, ten) portions of fruit and veg, of which two thirds should be veg; see footnote 67 on page 19 of our Response to the Consultation Draft of the Birmingham Food System Strategy.

(4) I’ve rounded the figure up from 2.47.

(5) The first goal of the Food Foundation project was for ‘more veg eaten’. They set a target for ‘3 billion additional portions of veg sold or served since 2017’
Notice that their ‘target’, if achieved, would have only been only a marginally less insignificant 0.8% increase.

(6) Well over four-fifths (85.4%) have not.

(7) Whatever ‘reached’ means.

(8) As we pointed out, Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy Plan, in which the Food Foundation was heavily involved, showed a deeply concerning lack of technical competence in understanding scientific papers; see section 2 of this blogpost: National Food Strategy Plan: None of our criteria was met. Does this matter?

(9) On being wrong, on failure: I quote Sir Paul Nurse about his undergraduate studies here in Birmingham in his autobiographical essay on winning the Nobel Prize. (I know him slightly, the Birmingham connection of course. And the tutor he mentions, Jack Cohen, was one of The New Optimists.)

“I had an eccentric zoology tutor Jack Cohen who was hugely stimulating and entertaining, and although frequently wrong was always wrong in an interesting way. He taught me the value of the alternative view and also was the first to introduce me to the cell cycle with a project on the respiration rate of dividing fish eggs, a project which ended in complete disaster.”

(10) These are our critical messages in Our Note to the National Preparedness Commission (November 2023):

(11) Facing reality?Notice the featured image is of frozen peas. They’re far more nutritious than fresh ones (unless you can get them from picking to plate within minutes). Fresh isn’t always best. Processed is often good, indeed necessary.
(About the derogatory term ‘ultra-processed’, see this blogpost).

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