The Soil Association and air freight

Only 1% of imported organic food comes by air. But the Soil Association says that air freight ‘can generate 177 times’ the CO2 of shipping. Air transport is necessary for some fruit and delicate vegetables which provide a vital source of income in some poor countries. The Association was caught in a dilemma. It didn’t want to give its valuable imprimatur to foods that caused climate damage but neither did it want to impoverish poor tropical communities.

It carried out a detailed and thoughtful consultation with stakeholders. It seems a model of its kind. The consultation produced a consensus that air freight was only acceptable if the products were farmed in a way that brought development to the local community. In essence the Association is saying that only ‘Fairtrade’ products will be able to carry its valuable label. It won’t be enough just to meet the ordinary standards for organic agriculture.

Peter Melchett, the policy director of the Association, said that the ‘results of our very widespread consultation show that most people in the North and the South say that they only support air freight if it delivers real environmental and social benefits. The linking of organic and ethical or Fairtrade standards does that’.

The Soil Association will now move to ratify this decision, which went against central government advice, at least as expressed in a recent speech by a minister.

In the same press release it also announced a move to involve the Carbon Trust in providing a ‘footprint’ for organic foods (please see the article on organic food and carbon emissions in Carbon Commentary Newsletter #1). It said it would move towards carbon labelling of organic foods (please see the article on Tesco and Wal-Mart in Carbon Commentary Newsletter #2 for reasons why we think this is a mistake).

In a slightly surprising move, it also announced that it would seek to ‘actively encourage people to eat less meat’. Since beef cultivation is an important source of emissions, this makes good sense, but the Association is taking a risk by suggesting people should change their diet.

It also intends to review whether heated glasshouses are appropriate recipients of organic labels. This last point is well overdue. The carbon footprint of a food from a Dutch heated glasshouse is likely to be far greater than an air-freighted equivalent grown in the tropics.