When will Labour learn that we are what we eat?

Cheap food and poor diet cost the Treasury billions. Ministers must put health, as well as safety, a

Bit by bit, the Labour government is having to address the extent of the food policy crisis. But it hasn't yet fully grasped that only by putting health - not just food safety - at the centre of its policy agenda will it be able to create a coherent, popular, cost-saving food policy. The replacement of the discredited Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is a welcome first step, but the missing element is health. Why?

The government set up three inquiries in August: one on foot-and-mouth disease, a second into the science of foot-and-mouth, and the third - and most important - being a more strategic Commission on Food and Farming, which is due to report by Christmas. After foot-and-mouth destabilised the timing of the general election in the spring, Labour has learnt that food can be politically dangerous, and not just to neoliberal Tories. Time and again, the Tories were seen to have had a reflex to accommodate the interests of the food business. Yet by stacking the membership of the new commission with industry and landed interests from the UK's £100bn-a-year food sector, Labour is walking on thin ice.

And even though the commission's terms of reference include health, no member has expertise in that area. Is the head of J Sainsbury, a commission member, going to bring that to the table? Or will the gentleman from BT Wireless, the head of Unilever, or the farm and landed interests?

When Labour was elected in 1997, it promised a new broom in governance. An independent Food Standards Agency was to be set up, prompting one minister to say in private that it would be a load off his back, because the agency would be the buffer between scandal and politician. The other main commitment was to reform the despised Common Agricultural Policy.

More than four years on, the agency is up and running, though arguably with a remit that is too narrowly focused on safety. It is, however, edging into the more important and dangerous territory of nutrition. Here, we shall see whether it really is prepared to confront the power-brokers of the modern food economy, or instead retreats to neoliberal platitudes about labelling.

Good food labelling is fine, but is not the sum of a food policy. What's in the food (quality), how it was made (the production process) and who gets it (equitable distribution) are more important.

As the first industrial nation, Britain shattered any pretension of aspiring to good food by treating food as cheap fuel. We have come a long way, but even today food education is lamentable. The UK abandoned practical cooking skills (home economics) with the introduction of the national curriculum. We are en route to a dependency consumer culture in which we assemble bought-in food during the week and - those of us who can afford it - indulge ourselves ostentatiously at the weekend, either at home or by eating out.

Governments since the war have extolled the virtues of cheap food, but then have had to tax consumers to pay for health problems in part caused by diet. The taxpayer pays for ill-health caused by a poor-quality food supply in the form of environmental damage, heart disease, food poisoning, obesity, and so on, while the state colludes with the private sector in refusing to see that there is a health problem beyond the narrow confines of food safety. Heart disease? Blame the consumer for poor habits. New levers are needed, as is a new framework to deliver public health through food. If fuel can be taxed for its greenhouse emissions, why not fatty foods? And don't fall for the line that food needs to get still cheaper to feed the poor. The poor need better incomes.

Why does Labour keep ignoring that food and disease are two sides of the same coin? One answer is that it lacks any body to advise it or to take an overview. The old Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy has been abolished. The Health Development Agency has a restricted budget and role. The Department of Health is still narrowly obsessed about the NHS.

Scandinavian countries have food and nutrition councils that cost next to nothing, and which are charged with taking the long view, sifting evidence and giving advice to government on public policy. They could be just what we need here. By making health the priority, they have transformed their industries, insisting that ill-health prevention is the goal of the entire food supply chain.

The big problems are not the headline issues such as food poisoning or foot-and-mouth, but the steady death toll from degenerative diseases: heart disease, cancers, diabetes and obesity. These aren't just a medical headache; they are a cultural challenge. Quite simply, consumers in affluent societies are eating feast-day food every day, indulging taste aspirations set down by the industrial revolution. Yet our physiology is maladapted to this assault; our genetic potential was laid down millennia ago. Our capacity to store fat made sense when eating tended to be spasmodic. Today, the fat - unless burned off by physical activity - goes to arteries, thus leading to heart disease. And rather than burn calories by walking to the supermarket, we burn non-renewable fossil fuels by using the car.

On the face of it, the food chain since the war has been a huge success. In 1950 the British spent on average 30 per cent of disposable income on food. Today, it is less than 10 per cent. But this average disguises huge social class differences, and a decade and a half of food scandals has caused economists to question the "success" of cheap food.

The government's model for food policy dates back to the postwar Labour administration's ground-breaking Agriculture Act 1947. Unleash science, the logic went, and make capital available to farming. Couple it with efficient distribution and a welfare safety net, and the package will deliver health. Instead, this policy has delivered another set of expensive problems.

The Treasury is rightly furious about having to fork out one-off costs for BSE (£4bn and rising) and foot-and-mouth (£4bn), but ignores the routine, huge health bill that results from cheap food and poor diet. Food poisoning, which stung the government into setting up the Food Standards Agency, costs the public purse £1bn a year, small fry compared to, for instance, £3bn on the dietary contribution to coronary heart disease or £500m on obesity (plus £2bn to the wider economy, according to the National Audit Office). Cardiovascular disease is Europe's main cause of premature death. Health problems have brought the postwar food policy to crisis, yet the process of revising that policy is being sidelined.

Some argue that the grand era of nation-state food policy is over. It is true that the food corporations have created a parallel system of regulation and control in which the whip is contract specification. Yet most EU member states are revising national policies like mad. Most have created, or are creating, food agencies. A new European Food Authority starts work next year.

Last year, the UK government supported the passage of two pioneering European policies - and promptly ignored them. The first was a World Health Organisation three-pronged policy to link nutrition, food safety and sustainable food supply. The second was to give all EU policies a nutrition audit. Yet Labour remains fixated on EU agricultural policy rather than setting goals for the whole supply chain.

This is not to suggest that all is fine with the Common Agricultural Policy. What is it for? Neoliberals hate it, because it represents a bastion of state protectionism. Fed by figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, they look longingly to New Zealand which, in a big bang, cut all subsidies and let its farmers fall. Taking a different route, Australia restructured gently with the state's hand on the tiller and now has an agricultural industry more profitable than its antipodean neighbour.

Countries such as Australia, Sweden and France, which invest in high standards, find that their approach builds home markets and creates vibrant food sectors. Make exports the priority and you send industry a signal to intensify and cost-cut. The tab for human and environmental health consequences has to be picked up either by the state or by individual consumers. Unilever, fat producer to the empire, has little interest in growing more fruit and vegetables. Yet that's what it ought to be doing. Get out of the fats, salt and sugar industries and grow more fruit and veg! This is no more fanciful a long-term goal than was the mission 50 years ago to rebuild British agriculture.

Germany, Austria, Sweden and even Greece all leave Britain standing in their efforts to take more seriously the links between environmental and human health. Sweden took a policy decision in the Fifties to build quality into its national and corporate structure after 100 people died in a salmonella outbreak. The Food and Farming Commission ought to take the Scandinavian model seriously. Instead, its early pronouncements appear to be seduced by the North American way: international competitiveness with a touch of bolt-on conservation. The United States, with obesity rates at 40 per cent of the adult population, is no advertisement for a healthy lifestyle.

Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and her team are the greenest in Whitehall, but they neglect health at their peril. The Department of Health ought to be agitating for a food policy council, but it is weak on food. The medical profession continues to prefer to treat disease rather than prevent it. At its most absurd, this means offering (and rationing) pills for obesity rather than championing more local shops to sell locally produced food that requires fewer car journeys to buy.

The big challenge is how to make the complex, capital- efficient but hugely wasteful UK food supply chain meet environmental, ethical and health objectives in affordable ways. It took 50 years to get into this mess; it will take another 20 or 30 to get out of it. We must reach a more sustainable model - what I call ecological public health - based on an understanding that the soil, climate, plants, animals and methods of production are intimately linked to human health, which is predicated on a vibrant, knowledgeable consumer culture.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at Thames Valley University. His new book, with Michael Heasman, Food Wars, is due out from Earthscan early next year