Minister Warns Over Organic Air Freight Limits
By Rebecca Smithers, (Monday, September 17 2007)
Food miles alone, or the distance food has travelled, is not the best way to judge whether the food we eat is sustainable. Driving six and a half miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK.
Restricting UK imports of air-freighted organic fruit and vegetables from developing countries such as Africa would have a "disastrous" impact on the livelihoods of thousands of farmers, a government minister warned today.
The trade minister, Gareth Thomas, was speaking at a London seminar organised to debate the possible impact of a certification ban being considered by the Soil Association.
Earlier this summer, the association's independent standards board launched a public consultation to help decide how best to respond to growing consumer concerns about air freight's contribution to climate change.
The options proposed for discussion included taking no action, labelling, or the phased implementation of a selective or general ban.
Yesterday the International Trade Centre (ITC), an agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, emphasised its opposition to a ban as it published the initial findings of research into the potential financial impact on farmers and exporters in developing countries and importers in the European Union.
Mr Thomas said today: "Food miles alone, or the distance food has travelled, is not the best way to judge whether the food we eat is sustainable. Driving six and a half miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK.
"We need a better-informed food miles debate. Long-term, the only fair option is to ensure the prices of the goods we consume, including organic produce, cover the environmental costs wherever the goods are from. We also need a labelling system that tells consumers about how the product is reducing poverty."
Mr Thomas said the long-term impact of a ban would be "disastrous" for communities farming the food.
"Demand for air-freighted organic fruit and vegetables is growing, particularly for ready-to-eat fruits and salads which mean work for farmers and jobs for food processors," he said. "The products can only be air-freighted and the market's potential growth will be cut short by an air-freight ban."
The research by the Geneva-based ITC revealed that most organic fruit and vegetables sold in the UK was imported from the least developed or lower-middle income developing countries, to the benefit of rural communities there.
Preliminary figures from Kenya and Ghana suggested that more than 2,500 workers could lose their jobs as a result of the proposed restrictions, with knock-on effects for approximately 15,000 dependents.
Alexander Kasterine, an ITC expert on trade and the environment, said: "Organic certification has been hugely successful in reducing poverty for thousands of African farming families. A ban on air-freighted products could be catastrophic for them, while making no contribution to mitigating climate change."
Air-freighted organic imports consist mainly of exotic fruits such as pineapple and mango - which make up almost half of the total volume - plus peas, beans and salad vegetables. The main countries exporting to the UK are the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Ghana and Egypt.
The Soil Association consultation closes at the end of the month and a final proposal is due to be unveiled by November.
Originally appeared in Guardian.