Sunday, December 30, 2007

More Disguised Protectionism Justified on False Pretense of Environmental Hazards Allegedly Posed by Air Transport

Fresh Organic Produce Shipped By Air Could Soon Be The Next Target Of The Environmental Campaigners

By Roger Turney

AirCargoWorld Online at:

As if the debate over carbon emissions weren't enough, airlines could soon face a challenge over their organic footprint amid calls to virtually ban the shipment of all air shipments of organic produce.

The startling move comes from the United Kingdom's Soil Association, the country's leading campaigner and certification organization for organic food and farming. It verifies the organic credentials of 70 percent of the UK's $4 billion organic produce market, with most imported produce coming into the country from Africa and South America.

Less than 1 percent of organic imports into the UK come by air, but this market already valued at $84 million a year and growing rapidly.

But the association claims more than 80 percent of the volume is grown in low-income countries. Said Anna Bradley, chair of the Soil Association's standards board: "It is neither sustainable nor responsible to encourage poorer farmers to be reliant on air freight, we need to seek alternative markets for these producers, so that they are no longer dependent on air freight to get their produce to market."

The Soil Association is seeking to impose stringent standards on all organic produce flown into the UK, which would demand that all producers not only meet tougher ethical trade standards, but that they agree to reduce any remaining reliance on air freight.

The association's ultimate goal, said Bradley, is to minimize the use of air freight for all imported produce.

Sans Airlines

In recent months, the association conducted a series of studies and meetings with input from more than 200 interested parties, including growers, suppliers and importers. Notably, no airlines were consulted. Ken Hayes, standards research manager for the Soil Association, said the group is concerned about the long-term impact that shipping produce by air could have on the environment.

"We recognize that a general ban could potentially inhibit growth in the organic market and focusing on the environmental impact of air freight could be considered disproportionate and unfair when in the UK, for example, the majority of carbon dioxide emissions for food transport
occurs on UK roads, not in the air," Hayes said.

A selective ban might work, he said, but that would be difficult, involving social and political judgments that would be extremely difficult for an organic certification body to make.

"But that would at least allow us to make the call allowing the shipment of organic produce by air in justifiable situations, such as guaranteeing year round supply," Hayes said.

One suggestion is to push the decision onto the end customer by labeling all organic produce shipped by air. Hayes said this labeling would "prick the conscious of the customer," but does not help resolve the complex debate over the safest form of transportation.

The association could consider carbon offsetting as a way to balance its priorities with the business demands of the fast-growing UK organic produce market. "The only problem is that no national standard for offsetting yet exists," said Hayes.

After further consultation through 2008, the new standards are set to be applied from the start of 2009.

Over Top

But is some organic produce suppliers believe the Soil Association might be in danger of overreacting.

Anthony Pile is chairman of Blue Skies, an organic produce supplier, which imports fresh pineapple into the UK from Ghana in West Africa. "We have always felt that focusing on air freight in the organic food audit trail grossly simplifies the issue and does not take into account
the social and economic impact of organic farming in somewhere like Africa."

He called for the UK Soil Association to commission a more detailed study into the environmental impact of organic food production."We need to get across the message that measuring environmental impact is not as simple as counting the, 'food miles' or targeting the
airplanes," said Pile. "It is about looking at the whole story from when it is grown to when it is eaten."

Environmental groups have targeted what has become known as food miles as one example of problems growing out of globalization, arguing that food shipped around the world has had a troubling impact on the environment. One study showed food imports into the UK doubled in the 1990s and industries such as the strawberry and apple farms have been sharply cut back while imports soared.

Pile insists Blue Skies only exports products from Ghana using passenger aircraft on existing scheduled services. "If we were to stop flying organic produce, the planes would still fly and the extra space left in the belly holds would probably be filled by non-perishable goods, which do not necessarily need to be flown," Pile said.

Although not consulted, the airfreight industry also has a viewpoint. "There is a great deal of noise surrounding the issues of organically produced and ethically sourced perishables," said Ed Searancke, general manager of customer delivery for British Airways World Cargo. "But there
is also a lack of industry data, which is needed to enable us to have an informed debate."

BAWC handled 115,000 tonnes of perishables through London Heathrow last year. With year on year growth rates of between 5 percent and 10 percent, perishables now represents a fifth of the airline's cargo tonnage. Don't expect the carriers to go all-organic any time soon.

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