Soil Association considers ban on air-freight organic food

The Soil Association has launched a consultation to tackle the environmental impact of air freighting organic foods.

Air freight is the fastest growing form of food transport but it emits more greenhouse gases per food mile than any other transport mode.

However, the ability to air freight food thousands of miles around the world in a matter of hours has put a wider variety of products on our shelves all year round.

It also enables producers in developing countries to supply the UK with premium organic products.  

The Soil Association Standards Board is considering the following five possible options:

Option 1: Take no action

The Soil Association would continue campaigning for local, seasonal and organic food but the Standards Board would not develop standards limiting or prohibiting air freight.

RISK: This option poses significant risk to the integrity of organic food. Air freight’s contribution to climate change is clearly at odds with the Soil Association’s environmental principles and the expectations of consumers who buy organic for environmental reasons.

BENEFIT: International trade in organic food has helped the UK’s organic market grow and can be a catalyst for organic movements elsewhere in the world. Certain organic products will be on the shelves all year round, competing with their non-organic counterpart. In addition, air freight enables producers in developing countries to access high value export markets, providing vitally needed jobs and opportunities to add value.  

Option 2: A general ban (introduced over a number of years)

RISK: A general ban could potentially inhibit growth of the organic market and attract criticism from the countries affected and from development organisations. Focusing on air freight could be considered disproportionate and unfair when the majority of the CO2 emissions from UK
food transport occurs on UK roads.

BENEFIT: The projected growth of the aviation industry is a threat to efforts to mitigate climate change. To tackle climate change effectively we need to urgently reduce emissions from all sectors. Banning air freight would send a clear message that transporting food by air is unsustainable.  

Option 3: A selective ban (i.e. with exemptions, introduced over a number of years)

RISK: We would need to communicate clearly when and why we are allowing air freight to ensure we are not considered to be acting inequitably. The practicalities of implementing a selective ban could be considerable involving social or political judgements that are extremely difficult for an organic certification body to make.

BENEFIT: Whilst recognising air freight contributes to climate change we would have the flexibility to allow air freight in justifiable situations. For example these could be for guaranteeing all year round supply or where there are development benefits in the producing country.  

Option 4: Labelling air freight

Tesco and Marks & Spencer have been quick to label produce in response to consumer concerns.

RISK: A label does not distinguish between air freight in different situations. Successfully altering consumer habits by labelling is highly dependent on informing consumers of the complexities of the debate.

BENEFIT: Labelling products could give people in the UK the choice to eat out-of-season produce whilst bringing to their attention the environmental impact of doing so.  

Option 5: Carbon offsetting

RISK: Carbon offsetting is criticised for detracting from the pressing need to reduce emissions. The ability of some carbon offset schemes to actually bring about a net reduction in green house gases in the atmosphere has been questioned. No national standard for offsetting yet exists.
BENEFIT: A government approved carbon offset scheme might be a useful tool for mitigating the environmental impact of aircraft. This option could be more effective if complementary to measures aimed at reducing air freight.  

The deadline for the consultation is 28 September 2007.

What do you think of the different issues and options? Here is what has been said in The Independent, but let us know on our forums.