Airfreighting organic food faces UK ban

By George Reynolds

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Soil association Organic farming Sustainable agriculture

UK processors may forced to source organic foods closer to home
after a certification body proposed an outright ban on
airfreighting such products.

A ban is just one of the measures the Soil Association may introduce to respond to the increasing criticism of the environmental damage caused by transporting foods great distances.

Air-freighting organic food allows processors to market fresh produce which is out of season in the UK, but the Soil Association said it was concerned about the growing environmental damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions from flights carrying food around the world.

Airfreighting of organic produce is a small percentage of the total supplied to the UK. But with the entire sector growing at thirty per cent last year - faster than any other food market according to Soil Association statistics - imports by plane will increase if unchecked.

Speaking at the annual conference in Cardiff last week, Patrick Holden, Soil Association director said there was a strong demand from the public and many organic certificate licensees to reduce "food miles" -- a measure used by regulators to compare transport distances.

"Although there is very little airfreighting of organic produce, we believe there is an urgent and pressing need to make every contribution to curbing climate change that we can,"​ Holden said. "This is a complex issue though: especially for producers in developing countries where it involves equity and ethical trading issues, and that's why we shall actively engage a wide-range of stakeholders to ensure we get it right."

During 2005, supermarkets were sourcing two-thirds of salad vegetables and more than a third of other vegetables from abroad. Overall, supermarkets, which are responsible for about 75 per cent of all organic sales, imported 34 per cent of all such foods they sold in 2005.

According to the UK's Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the transport of food by air has the highest CO2 emissions per tonne, and is the fastest growing mode.

Although air freight of food accounts for only one per cent of food tonne kilometres and 0.1 per cent of vehicle kilometres, it produces 11 per cent of the food transport CO2 equivalent emissions.

The Soil Association standard's board decided at last week's meeting that it will consult on a range of options to tackle the environmental impact of airfreighting organic food over the coming year.

The board intends to publish a consultation paper outlining options for the industry ranging from labelling produce to indicate "food miles", carbon offsetting to an outright ban on airfreighting.

A consultation paper will be drawn up during the next 12 months, which will create a formal recommendation to the Soil Assocation elected council. The independent certification body will then introduce measures it deems appropriate, binding its members, regardless of actions taken by the UK government or European Union.

Government studies show that, on average, organic farming uses about 15 per cent less energy to produce the same amount of food than industrial farming. Most organic farming practices are around 30 per cent more efficient, but it is less energy efficient for poultry and glasshouse vegetables. Avoiding energy-intensive fertilisers is the main reason organic farms use less energy than those adopting industrial processes.

Holden said that individual, grass roots action is at the heart of the Soil Association's agenda.

"This conference is the most important in the Soil Association's 60 year history, confirming the vision of our founders in highlighting the unsustainability of the post-war shift to industrial farming, long before the term sustainability had been coined,"​ he said. "But the scale and urgency of the challenge to get farming and food production globally onto a sustainable, climate-friendly footing is greater than those organic pioneers could have envisaged. Individual, grassroots action is at the heart of our Conference agenda, neither the Soil Association, the public or the planet have the appetite or time for more political rhetoric."

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