The end of the affair

New Labour has fallen out of love with farming. Agricultural reform is useless unless Britain and de

Does Europe need farming? Britain is in danger of appearing to argue that it doesn't. The battle over Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform is always bitter, but its sudden injection into the European budget and constitutional crisis is a risky strategy, not just for Blair but for Europe too. The fury being unleashed against agricultural subsidies comes just when analysts are recognising the importance of huge structural crises - climate change, water shortage, rural labour shortage, escalating diet-related health costs, and corporate concentration - which all suggest a need for a strategic rethink about food policy.

Instead of building these challenges into a new model food policy, the Treasury and No 10 seem to argue that Africa and the developing world ought to feed us. Not only is this a simplistic policy for the developing world - not least because export-led growth policies promoted by the World Bank have caused commodity prices to collapse, leaving those countries unable to service their debts - but Britain's own health, environment and security will all suffer as a result.

This is not an argument against CAP reform; far from it. Reform of the CAP - whose export subsidies wreak havoc on the economies of developing countries - is welcome, perhaps more so than the cancellation of debt. But, in all the debate, there has been little consideration of what will replace CAP. Present reform, although ending production subsidies, is all about cutting costs. There is a failure of vision and a warped view that agriculture has no value other than as a playground for golf, tourism or "country living" fantasies.

The logic of such a view is seductively simple. In Britain, less than 1 per cent of the working population is employed in farming. Farmers, with an average age of 57, are dying off. And their products have declining value. Most of the value added to food, to meet consumer needs, occurs in factories, retail chains and food-service sectors. New Labour has fallen out of love with farming, its disregard reflected in the replacement of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). It now prefers to leave such matters as food production to the likes of Tesco. If BSE was a Tory problem, foot-and-mouth disease, which took hold in 2001, was Labour's, and the £4bn compensation bill was the final straw.

The 2002 Commission on the Future of Food and Farming, set up in the wake of foot-and-mouth, tried to chart a new direction: efficiency in global markets, meeting the needs of the food giants and incorporating a soft-green environmental focus. But the silence on nutrition-related public health was deafening. Recent reports from the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation note with alarm how diet-related ill-health is unsupportable worldwide. Developing countries, especially Africa, cannot afford the double-whammy of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, heart disease and obesity on top of infectious diseases and malnutrition.

New farm and food policies are required that reduce the consumption of sugar, fat and meats, and maximise the output of healthy products for home populations such as fruit and vegetables, so that countries can feed themselves.

Another impending danger stems from the belief that food supplies are safely bought on "open" world markets. A tenth of world agricultural output is traded. The over-producing US wants this to grow. It's thrilled at the alliance-curbing CAP, which rejects the post-Second World War notions of food security that promoted a strong home base of production. Nowadays, food processors, retailers and food service giants roam the world to source fresh foods from wherever land and labour are cheap. This global food economy has become totally dependent on oil, not just to move goods, but to process and produce them. Oil prices that rise above $60 a barrel, and national experiences such as the UK lorry drivers' strike in 2000 show just how fragile the food system is.

One could argue that affluent countries such as Britain can always buy food from wherever quality and price suit them best. Developing countries cannot afford the same luxury. They are already feeling the tight squeeze of the multinational retail giants, who encourage them to divert their energies from feeding themselves to supplying an over-fed west.

European food policy is currently verging on a new food imperialism and it has to change. Moreover, the dangers of climate change urgently require the development of more sustainable farming, not further intensification abroad. A new farm and food policy ought to have public health goals, encouraging appropriate national production, with ecological farming not a niche, but the norm.

A radical shift in Britain's food policy is not unprecedented. Labour reconstructed farming after the Second World War, after a century of dangerous reliance on the far-off lands of the British empire, and built on health improvements, despite the war.

Eight years ago, the Blair government inherited a mess from the Tories. But allowing farming to disappear will not solve the problem. We need a food and farming policy that simultaneously meets environmental, economic, societal, public-health and global responsibilities. Allowing European or even British farming to abandon food production will not deliver that necessary mix. Not without reason do fair-trade bodies now apply thinking honed in the developing world to farming nearer home. A culture that cannot feed itself is at risk, wherever it is.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy, City University, London. He is the co-author of Food Wars, and The Atlas of Food, both published by Earthscan