Air support for Africa’s organic farms
Two of Britain’s biggest airlines are joining forces with African farmers to
fight environmental restrictions on food transported by air.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, which make millions of pounds from flying
food in passenger jets, have given free tickets to representatives of farmers
in Ghana and Kenya to visit London to argue their case.
The airlines are planning to make a joint submission with the farmers to a review
of air freight by the Soil Association, which certifies around 70% of organic
food sold in Britain.
The association has proposed new conditions for farmers and wholesalers who want
to continue to be certified as organic. They will have to publish a plan for
reducing their use of air freight and also achieve &lquot;fair-trade&rquot; status by investing
in education and welfare schemes for their workers.
The movement of food by air to Britain more than trebled between 1992 and 2006,
with an additional 24,000 tonnes carried in 2006 alone.
More than 60% travelled in the holds of passenger aircraft.
BA carries 100,000 tonnes of fresh produce a year, mainly from Africa and South
America, and food accounts for a sixth of its cargo business.
The Soil Association says that transporting produce by air generates 177 times
more greenhouse gases than sending it by ship. But pineapples grown in Ghana
and green beans from Kenya would arrive in supermarkets much less fresh if they
spent days or weeks in a shipping container.
Flying Matters, which campaigns for the expansion of aviation and is funded by
airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers, is holding a meeting in London
on March 31 to draw up a response to the association’s proposal. The African farmers’ representatives
will attend the meeting alongside figures from the aviation industry.
Michelle Di Leo, director of Flying Matters, said: &lquot;Criticism of air-freighted
fresh produce is completely disproportionate to the impact it has on the environment.
The people producing these vegetables have one of the lowest carbon footprints
&lquot;The association’s proposals are the direct result of campaigning by antiaviation
groups and mean the very people they profess to want to save from climate change
tomorrow will be the ones to pay the price in lost livelihoods today.&rquot;
More than 21,000 people in developing countries depend on Soil Association-certified, air-freighted organic produce for their
Gareth Thomas, the Trade and Development Minister, criticised the association’s
proposal, saying it would be too expensive for some African producers to achieve
But Lord Melchett, the association’s policy director, said shoppers who bought
organic produce would want the label to mean that workers had been treated properly,
not just that the produce had been grown without harmful fertilisers and pesticides.
PRESS RELEASE 06/03/2008
lasting 4 months, receiving nearly 400 responses from the public, NGOs, industry,
government and international agencies plus meetings with 100 organisations – the
Soil Association’s Standards Board  recommended that the organisation’s standards
should be changed so that organic produce can only be air-freighted if it also
meets the Soil Association’s own Ethical Trade or the Fairtrade Foundation’s standard.
best practice, gives people the opportunity to comment on the implementation of
this recommendation and provides an opportunity to ensure it is practical and
fit for purpose. 
&lquot;This has proved to be a powerful and positive process – ensuring the best outcome
for people and planet. This second stage of consultation gives the opportunity
for people, especially affected licensees, to comment on our proposal, ensuring
the final published standard is workable and effective.
between social, environmental and economic objectives.  By addressing concerns
over air freight in our standards, we aim to make it easier for consumers to make
informed and sustainable choices, allowing poor farmers in developing countries
achieve the social and environmental benefits of organic production along with
the economic benefits achieved by selling in developed country markets.
policy makers to adopt a similar approach; rather than criticising us for opening
up this debate, they should be showing some leadership and joining us to find
Not true. The Standards Board concluded that a ban on air freight would be the
wrong response to people’s rightful concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, but
also their equally strong concern that producers in developing countries should
not be disadvantaged.
– ensuring organic produce will only be air freighted if it also delivers real
benefits for farmers in developing countries.
been inaccurately reported. The initial consultation and research carried out
before and during the process, has provided a clearer understanding of how much
organic food is air freighted – we calculate less than 1% of all imported organic
and vegetables – 96% of organic airfreight is fresh fruit and vegetables imported
out of season. A small minority of products is air freighted to top up normal
in the UK that is imported overall i.e. whether by road, ship, train as well
as air. In fact, around 30% of all organic produce sold in the UK is imported
– the majority being exotic produce, citrus fruit, bananas, mangoes, pineapples,
tea, coffee, chocolate etc. that can’t be grown here.
Kenneth Hayes, Soil Association researcher – 0117 314 5189 / 07828 812 624
Soil Association press office – 0117 914 2448 / firstname.lastname@example.org
with consulting on and recommending standards proposals to the elected Soil Association
and require fair trading arrangements, ethical employment relationships including
fair pay, and concrete social and cultural contributions to the local community
or society more widely. Those certified to these standards can use the Soil Association’s
Ethical Trade symbol. Being able to demonstrate compliance with Ethical Trade
Standards (or Fairtrade standards) offers an effective marketing tool for air
freighting businesses in the face of criticism over their carbon footprint.
involved face-to-face discussions and 2 dedicated consultation seminars, including
a key summit with over 100 delegates in July. We received over 200 written submissions,
the majority from members and general public – and also 187 on-line submissions.
We directly consulted with nearly 100 representatives from industry, NGOs, and
government, and also consulted Soil Association staff, committees, and council
– receiving 24 submissions from NGOs, 28 from industry and 5 from government and
international agencies. The notes from all these discussions and submissions
were considered as formal contributions to the consultation.
Organisation and the United Nations, commissioned research to look at the social
and economic implications of the Soil Association implementing an air freight
then consider the final recommendation of the Standards Board, with the resulting
changes to standards published in January 2009 and becoming fully effective from
2011 – so giving licensees time to achieve full compliance.
of food as non-organic farming, which is dependent on fossil-fuel hungry artificial
fertilisers, so organic farming can claim to be generally ‘climate-friendly.
other data from: Williams, A.G., Audsley, E. and Sandars, D.L. (2006) Determining
the environmental burdens and resource use in the production of agricultural and
horticultural commodities. Main Report. Defra Research Project IS0205. Bedford:
Cranfield University and Defra.
& development minister, Gareth Thomas, was quoted in The Guardian, [22 Oct
2007] ahead of the Soil Association announcement, speculating, “We oppose a general
ban and we would be pretty worried by a selective ban too as it would penalise
the very people it helps. Our view is the Soil Association should leave things
as they are.”
UK consumer demand for all year round fresh produce has seen air freight more
than double since 1992 (albeit from a low base) and growth is predicted to continue.
Air freight has become an integral part of the aviation industry. Less than 1%
of organic imports come by air freight, the vast majority coming by sea, but air
freight has the highest global warming potential of any form of transport. Although less than 1% of the total UK food miles, it is responsible for 11% of
the CO2 emissions from UK food transport.
– and challenges UK Government to do same for all air freighted produce’
(25 October 2007) press release
(17 July 2007) press release