The Soil Association stands by its standards on airfreighted food

28.4.2008     (Guardian – letters)

Peter Melchett, Soil Association

The government, supermarkets and organisations campaigning for increases in air
travel all criticise the Soil Association for trying to reduce the environmental
impact of organic food that comes to the UK by air (Letters, April 26). Airfreight
emits 177 times more greenhouse gases per food mile than shipping. Nothing else
we do to our food between planting the seed and buying the finished product makes
such a negative impact on the world’s climate. For example, 80% of all the greenhouse
gas emissions of green beans from Central America are from the flying the beans
to the UK.

The only other thing that comes close in terms of damage to the climate from
food production is heated greenhouses – if they are heated by fossil fuels. Neither
airfreighted food nor heated greenhouses play any significant part in organic
food, but airfreight of food is rising quickly, which is why it is seen as such
a threat to the climate by all the major environmental organisations.

Last year we consulted widely on whether we should do nothing about air freight,
or ban its use for the organic food certified under our own standards, or take
some other step. Responses showed strong support for some action, but not for
a ban. In developing countries, organic farming brings huge social, environmental
and economic benefits. Often airfreighted exports allow a domestic organic market
to grow, as has happened in Egypt and other countries. The UN’s Food and Agriculture
Organisation says that the pesticides used in non-organic farming adversely affect
around 60 million people a year in developing countries, and in our recent discussions
in Tanzania with African government representatives and organic experts, the development
case for encouraging organic farming was made very strongly.

These benefits to the poorest farmers in the developing world were used by many
in arguing against a ban on airfreight. We agree, and will continue to allow airfreight
under our standards. But we are proposing that airfreighted organic products meet
the Fairtrade or similar ethical trade standards. Our critics, including development
minister Gareth Thomas, who urged the Soil Association to “do nothing”, are in
effect saying that all trade is by definition fair. That is clearly nonsense.
For many, it seems that an ideological commitment to free trade at any cost takes
precedence over the interests of the environment and over ensuring the benefits
of trade really do reach poor farmers.

Peter Melchett

Policy director, Soil Association

The Soil Association stands by its standards on airfreighted food