Organic produce that is flown into the UK may not be certified as organic until it meets standards on ethical and fair trade, the Soil Association proposed today, a decision that has stirred up fears for the livelihoods of farmers in the developing world.
Debate on how to reduce carbon emissions caused by the organic industry opened in earnest in May, when the Soil Association, which certifies 70 per cent of organic food in the UK, published a discussion document on possible approaches. Carbon emissions are a rather embarrassing side effect for an industry that is largely driven by green considerations.
The details of the proposal will be up for further consultation next year, and the new certification rules are expected to come into effect from January 2009.
The impact on the organic market may be relatively small, since less than one per cent of organic imports enter the UK by air, says the association.
But eighty per cent of those air freighted organics hail from low or lower-middle income countries, meaning that the new standards will impact poorer farmer's market for their produce.
The Soil Association is proposing that any air-freighted produce should meet its own ethical trading standards or the Fairtrade Foundation's standards by 2011.
The association's ethical trading standards cover employment, trading relations, social and cultural conditions, origin of products and ingredients (that is, they must be "ethical trade organic"), labelling (ingredients must be 95 per cent by weight ethical trade organic) and record keeping.
The Soil Association also says: "Businesses reliant on air freight develop initiatives to reduce the amount of product they air freight - we should encourage people and businesses to be less reliant on fossil fuels for their livelihoods."
For farmers in developing countries, the practice of air-freighting is only acceptable if it delivers genuine benefits to them.
"It is neither responsible nor reasonable to encourage poorer farmers to be reliant on air freight, but we recognise that building alternative markets that offer the same social and economic benefits as organic exports will take time," said Anna Bradley, chair of the Soil Association's standards board.
"Therefore the Soil Association will be doing all it can to encourage farmers in developing countries to create and build organic markets that do not depend on air freight."
The International Trade Centre (ITC), however, is unconvinced by the association's arguments.
It says that organic exporters now face new costs to enter the UK, and poor African farmers will therefore find it harder to enter lucrative markets.
Moreover, the ITC claims that most food grown in the UK and in neighbouring Europe produce more greenhouse gasses than organic exports air-freighted by poor African farmers.
"The Soil Association decision does not address the environmental issue that was at the origin of the debate," said ITC expert on trade and development Alexander Kasterine. "Food transport has nothing to do with working conditions of farm workers, and only a small proportion of these exporters are currently using fair trade or ethical trade standards."
A large proportion of organic food sold in UK supermarkets is imported (over 30 per cent according to some estimates), since there is a shortfall in organic produce being grown in the country.
In May, Organic Monitor analyst Amarjit Sahota told FoodNavigator.com that the current shortage of organic produce in the UK could curb development of the market in general, especially given the growing demand.
Organic Monitor estimates that the UK organic food & drink market grew by an impressive 25 per cent last year to be worth £1.97bn (c €2.9bn).
The Soil Association's discussion document actually set out other options for reducing carbon emissions caused by the UK organic industry. These included the possibility of labelling organic food products with the number of air miles they have travelled, or a programme whereby the carbon produced by flying is off-set.
It said today that it is also looking at how we can reliably and fairly assess the full carbon footprint of all organic products and are working closely with the Carbon Trust.
"We want all organic products to have a minimal or even mitigating contribution to climate change. Aside from air freight, we are reviewing our standards for heated glasshouse production and actively encourage people to eat less meat."
The options were up for discussion with registered organic producers in the UK and overseas, supermarkets and other stakeholders about proposals contained in a consultation document.
The association said it received some 200 written responses over the summer.