In a significant decision for global organic food markets, Britain's Soil Association, the nation's premier certification body, has decided to continue certifying air-freighted organic food so long as the products meet ethical standards.
This would bring a "fair trade" designation to organic food, balancing the benefits of trade in developing countries with concerns about rising carbon emissions. "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 penalize many poor countries which benefit in terms of jobs and wages from growing organic food for British consumers," the Guardian newspaper reported.
"It is neither sustainable nor responsible to encourage
poorer farmers to be reliant on air freight but we recognize that
building alternative markets that offer the same social and economic
benefits as organic exports will take time," Anna Bradley, chair of the Soil Association's standards
The proposed standards require organic food producers in developing countries to contribute substantially to the social needs of communities and workers, and guarantee wages and good working conditions.
Significantly, sea-container shipped organic foods will not need to comply with the new standard, a Soil Association press officer said. That means spices and other foods with a long-shelf life that are often shipped by sea will get a pass. So will goods shipped by truck from, say, Turkey.
Although developing countries were the focus of the new standard, it does apply to any air-shipped organic foods, whether from Africa or from the US, Europe, and New Zealand. Perishables such as produce are often air-freighted. The London Telegraph reported that sweet potatoes and salad flown in from the U.S. would likely be stripped of their organic status.
"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," Peter Melchett, the Soil Association's policy director, said in the Guardian.
Image source: Soil Association
The Soil Association consulted nearly 200 organizations, including the World Trade Organization, governments and UN bodies. New Zealand, Kenya and the UK's Department for International Development argued strongly against a ban. Supermarkets recognized the public disquiet and argued for a labelling system, and UN bodies urged extreme caution to protect vulnerable economies, the Guardian said.
Patricia Francis, executive director of the Geneva-based International Trade Center (ITC), which is a joint agency of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the World Trade Organization, questioned whether the new certification scheme would be too restrictive.
"Meeting these standards costs money - laboratories, audits and more. Too many standards will hurt African farmers," she said in a BBC report.
The Guardian said that the Soil Association punted when faced with the issue (though it used the word "fudged.") "This is not to single out the organic watchdog for special opprobrium. It has simply made a trade-off, just as many shoppers do in their Saturday-afternoon trolley dashes," the paper said in its editorial.