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Organic Definition Under Attack By Group Opposed
To Air Freighting

The organic movement was already fracturing between advocates of local and advocates of organic. Now from the U.K., there is an indication that the organic standard will morph into something considerably different than its original meaning.

From the Guardian in the U.K.:


  • Soil Association rejects widespread calls for ban
  • Bar would have hit jobs in developing countries

Food air-freighted to Britain from developing countries will only bear an organic label in future if it can be shown that it was produced to fair trade standards as well as high environmental standards, the Soil Association said yesterday.

The move by Britain’s leading organic inspectors follows concern about the climate change impact of food flown long distances and fears that some developing countries are in danger of losing markets due to new “green” protectionism.

The association rejected calls from the public, environmentalists and some of its own producers for a ban on all air-freighted organic food, deciding this would penalise many poor countries which benefit in terms of jobs and wages from growing organic food for British consumers.

The new ethical standards, which are similar to those that apply to Fairtrade products, will demand that organic food producers in developing countries contribute substantially to the social needs of communities and workers, and guarantee wages and good working conditions.

No date has been given for the change but it is not expected to be in place for at least a year. “It’s right to continue to allow some organic air freight. Most people say that they only support air freight if it delivers real environmental and social benefits. This linking of organic and fair trade standards does that,” said Peter Melchett, the Soil Association’s policy director.

But he said that the long-term aim was to minimise air freight: “We think there will come a time where air transport becomes a thing of the past because of the cost of carbon emissions.”

The shift will only affect the trade of £46m of food, but it is considered significant because air-freighted fresh produce and organic food are two of the fastest-growing sectors of the giant global food economy. Other international certification organisations are expected to follow the lead of the Soil Association.

The move follows consultation with nearly 200 organisations, including the World Trade Organisation, governments and UN bodies. New Zealand, Kenya and the UK’s Department for International Development argued strongly against a ban. Supermarkets recognised the public disquiet and argued for a labelling system, and UN bodies urged extreme caution to protect vulnerable economies.

The prime minister of Tanzania, Edward Lowassa, pleaded with the association not to change its policy immediately because this would undermine opportunities for many developing countries to export high-value products to the UK. A study by the Danish Institute of International Studies, found that the world’s poorest countries account for 79% of the organic foods exported by plane to the UK. The biggest exporters are Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and Morocco.

Growing demand for year-round fresh produce has seen the volume of fresh fruit and vegetables flown into Britain more than double in 15 years. It is now common to see produce from Africa, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand on supermarket shelves. Foods include pineapples, mangos, peas and salad vegetables.

Although air-freighted goods are less than 1% of the total UK “food miles”, the government estimates they are responsible for 11% of the CO2 emissions from food transport. The rise in air freight is due to increased globalisation of food supply and a relative decrease in the cost of air freight compared to other forms of transport.

The proposal was actually to prevent any air-freighted product from bearing an organic label. So the requirement for a Fairtrade-like certification is actually a concession. Yet the African farmers, though glad they are not facing a total ban, see the restrictions as protectionist:

The Soil Association — the body that certifies UK organic produce — will require farmers to prove they provide employment at fair pay and that they are trying to lessen dependence on air travel.

The BBC’s business reporter Mark Gregory says they can do this, for example, by developing local markets for organic produce.

However farmers’ representatives say that in practice there is no real alternative to air freighting goods to where the demand is — among wealthy consumers in countries thousands of miles from where the products are grown….

But a Kenyan oilseeds producer said he was not impressed by the new measures.

“I think it’s a protectionist measure. Competitiveness is at stake here and therefore because a lot of produce is from the Third World the local farmers lobby is against it,” Vimal Shah told the BBC….

Airfreight, which some see as environmentally damaging because of the harmful emissions produced by flying, is the only way they can get perishable produce to these markets.

The International Trade Centre issued a statement saying the proposed changes would just add further costs to poor African farmers seeking to enter UK markets.

“Organic production in Africa has been an export success story and we are disappointed that the Soil Association will make it harder for African companies to enter lucrative markets,” said Patricia Francis, ITC’s Executive director…

There are really three issues: Substance, trade and the meaning of organic.

• Substance

Even when we assume good will, on the substance of the matter, the Soil Association is simply making a mistake.

First, one cannot pluck out one and only one aspect of the supply chain and make any environmental judgments regarding the totality of the chain. It is possible that one’s freight method might give off a lot of carbon, but one’s production method might compensate. To base a decision such as organic certification on one input of production and distribution contravenes everything organic advocates have claimed they believe about the need to consider the entire ecosystem and avoid “silver bullet” approaches.

Second, it is highly unlikely that organic production in Kenya — even with airfreight — contributes to more carbon output than organic production in the U.K. for the simple reason that workers in the U.K. are supported in U.K.-style — automobiles, heated and air conditioned homes, vacations in southern Spain — the poor African farm workers get none of this, which, properly considered, is part of the total carbon footprint of the production and distribution cycle.

Third, due to seasonal reasons, some product that would substitute for African produce would be grown in greenhouses. These can involve plenty of carbon output of their own.

Fourth, the notion that airfreight produces disproportionate carbon output is a determination subject to factual analysis that must be assessed in each and every case. If, for example, the produce was being shipped in the belly of a passenger airline, as is often the case, we must determine if that airliner would continue to fly without freight. If it would, we have to refigure the carbon output to be based solely on the additional carbon output caused by the additional weight of the produce. Further, since this is all about transportation methods, we would have to contrast this newly figured carbon output via air with the carbon output by truck to Alexandria, boat across the Mediterranean and another truck to the U.K. It is not at all clear that the carbon output of the truck, boat, truck route is less than putting the cargo on a plane that was flying anyway.

Fifth, if the goal is to help the world deal with global warming, the Soil Association needs to think about wealth and increasing it. It turns out that wealthy countries have many ways of dealing with global warming and mitigating its negative effects and taking advantage of positive impacts. By imposing costs on industry that needs to use air freight, the Soil Association makes it likely that business will migrate from these poor African countries to other areas. This means that Africa will be poorer than would have been otherwise the case and thus less likely to be able to deal effectively with global warming, which will not be halted by this action.

• Trade

First, if this becomes a governmental requirement for being sold as organic, it would clearly be a restraint of trade and violation of the WTO rules. We would argue that operating under the patronage of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales gives it that imprimatur. Countries are just not permitted to select out and discriminate against the transport means that other countries use to get product to market.

Second, the Soil Association is imposing an additional cost only on those who need to air freight product. This discriminates against more perishable goods and countries that are landlocked. You can be sure that these issues will be objected to in trade talks.

Third, the Soil Association is heavily influenced by British organic farmers. It cannot be objective in this type of decision.

• Meaning of Organic

Many people believe that the world would be a better place if synthetic fertilizers are not used or if their use is minimized. That does not mean that on all moral judgments people want elite committees to make decisions for them. The truth, unarguably, is that produce that is grown organically is not altered by whether it is transported in a plane, a boat, a train, a truck, behind a team of horses or on the top of a person’s head. So this issue simply doesn’t belong in a definition of organic.

This is an attempt to shove down the throat of consumers a particular economic and moral philosophy. In so doing, they will do untold harm to the Africans but also untold harm to the future of organics.

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