By Martin Hickman
For the conscientious, food shopping poses many ethical dilemmas: are organic bananas better than Fair-trade or English tomatoes preferable to imports?
Britain’s booming organic movement has been wrestling with one such dilemma for years and the debate has become so heated it can no longer be ignored. From today, the country’s organic farmers, suppliers and shoppers are being asked for an answer to an awkward question: is it acceptable to air-freight organic food?
On this one question could hinge the prosperity of thousands of African farmers, fruit and vegetable importers, the integrity of the organic movement and, to some extent, the health of the planet itself.
If the body which certifies three-quarters of organic food, the Soil Association, rules that the climate change pollution cannot be justified, it may ban all flown-in food.
A ban might split the organic movement: one side with strict environmental standards and another with looser standards that factor in the development of the Third World. The argument arises from the rapid rise of the UK organic movement, which has burgeoned into a [pound]1.6bn-a-year business.
Farmers have struggled to grow enough food and in 2005 supermarkets imported one-third of their organic range, mostly by air.
Nationally “food miles” are at a record high, with air- freighting up 136 per cent between 1992 and 2002. Yet flying food thousands of miles from poor farmers to wealthy Westerners generates substantial amounts of C02 just as climate change is being recognised as an emergency. Shoppers find the dissonance uncomfortable: a Soil Association survey found that eight out of 10 would prefer to buy conventional local food rather than an organic import.
At Britain’s biggest vegetable box supplier, River-ford Farm in Devon, airfreighted food is banned. The self-imposed ban is sometimes difficult but Guy Watson, its founder, believes the environment must take priority. He tells customers: “Most out-of- season veg imported to the UK is flown in from Africa and South America causing horrendous emissions, or trucked from southern Europe with less, but still substantial, environmental impact.” About 80 per cent of the company’s 35,000 customers’ food comes from the UK, with the rest arriving by road or ship.
By contrast, the importer Blue Skies in Northamptonshire buys fresh pineapple, mango and coconuts from Ghana, where it employs 1,500 people. “We would see any change to the rules as unfair to us and unfair to Africa,” said the founder, Anthony Pile. “The carbon emissions for air freighted food is something like 1 per cent of the total emissions. Why hit farmers who have a tiny carbon footprint and often live without electricity?” he asked.
In its consultation, which ends on 28 September this year, the Soil Association is setting out the case for five options. Maintaining the status quo would help faraway producers but might damage the organi-sation’s credibility. A gradual or total ban would damage exporters but help tackle climate change and encourage more sustainable agriculture. Warning stickers or offsetting flights would be a compromise.
Anna Bradley, of the Soil Association’s standards committee, explained that the rules had to evolve over time and the time had come for a definitive answer on aviation. “It’s quite clear right now that these issues of climate change and CO2 are much more important than they were 10 years ago and it feels much more pertinent to talk about them,” she said. But Britain’s organic trailblazer could lose business by raising its standards, just as it did when it tightened its rules on poultry farms. “That cost us licensees but it has … retained the integrity of the standard,” she said.
Flown in from abroad
PORK FROM DENMARK
When it opens its massive new 75,000 sq ft store in London’s Kensington High Street next month, the US organic giant Whole Foods Market will stock many imports from all over the world because UK supply of organic produce is overstretched. Among products likely to be brought in are pork from Denmark and beef from France and Germany.
PINEAPPLES FROM GHANA
Workers in west Africa grow and pack tropical fruit such as pineapples, mangoes and papaya which is then flown to the UK. Countries like Ghana say the foreign income is vital to development.
MILK FROM THE NETHERLANDS
Supermarkets are struggling to find enough organic milk because of the number of dairy farmers going out of business and the time taken to convert to new methods. Organic milk is bought from the Netherlands.
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