Could organic eat itself?
overall food market, air freighting - a measure that solves
the segment's biggest current problem - is facing potential
The UK's influential Soil Association last week launched a debate on whether the increasing use of air freighting organic foods into the country goes against the principles behind such products. In a debate paper the association indicates that such a prohibition should be made as air freighting is considered to be more damaging than shipping or road delivery. As an organic certifier and an environmental campaigner, the association's proposal could be a classic case of putting principle before practicality. Removing suppliers' ability to import organic produce by air could have a damaging effect on the organic industry as a whole. Organic now makes up about two per cent of the entire food market, largely thanks to the work of the Soil Association, the UK's largest certifier. About 70 per cent of all organic food sold in the UK carries its logo. However, the number one reason given in surveys as to why more organic food isn't sold is supply. Put simply, there isn't enough of the stuff to meet the demand. At first glance, this situation may appear to be a strong position for the organic industry, giving it the ability to charge consumers higher prices. But supply problems could also have the opposite effect on demand. Is there a danger that by removing the certification from suppliers that continue to air freight and thus restricting the supply, the whole organic market could fall to a point below its critical mass? Given the tiny amount of produce actually air freighted, probably not. But imposing a ban will definitely reduce the range of organic products available to UK consumers. Such a situation would be especially true for seasonal and perishable products, such as organic pineapples and papayas. Regular, year-round supplies are being demanded, but with up to 95 per cent of fruit imported, and about 50 per cent of vegetables sourced from abroad, according to a 2006 Farmers Weekly survey. Cutting organic suppliers' ability to meet short-term demand will push consumers to switch to non-organic choices. Keeping the shelves bare will just enforce this choice. Air freighting is the most expensive and most environmentally damaging mode of transporting food. One per cent of food consumed in the UK is air freighted and is responsible for 11 per cent of the total food transport CO2 emissions, according to the Soil Association. Therefore it is and should be a mode only used when absolutely necessary. Still, is it not better for the organic industry, that air freighting continues to be an importation channel left open to suppliers? Surely it's preferable to have the odd plane delivering organic green beans from Kenya when supplies are low, than to have no organic green beans at all because local and shipped supplies cannot meet demand? The ability to have the flexibility to provide customers a year round supply of organics and a wider range of products that include exotic fruits has a halo effect on the industry. The more products on the shelves in terms of both volume and range, the more likely people are going to accept organic as a practical alternative to non-organic products. The Soil Association's proposal could be a self fulfilling prophecy. If suppliers cannot meet demand for year-round supplies, organic food could be forced aside by other products, such as Fairtrade, and the industry will have to content itself only with supplies that are shipped or produced locally. The organisation is attempting to raise the profile of organics as environmentally friendly foods along the whole supply chain. Yet an air freight ban, with its best intentions, could end up having a damaging effect on the industry as a whole. George Reynolds is a reporter for AP-FoodTechnology.com and FoodProductionDaily-USA.com. He has a law degree and holds UK accounting and journalism qualifications. If you would like to comment on this article please contact george.reynolds 'at' decisionnews.com