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Concern mounts over UK Soil Association food miles plans

by Tracy Miles
Food Miles on agenda
Zucchini crop

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New Zealand exporters of organic food are getting nervous by talk in the United Kingdom that food imported by air could be stripped of its organic status says OANZ in its latest newsletter.


The UK Soil Association, which certifies more than 70% of organic produce sold in the UK, has said it is looking at a range of options to help reduce food miles from labelling produce and carbon offsetting to an outright ban on airfreighting.


Debate not going away says Voss      OANZ Chairman Doug Voss said while there is very little airfreighting of organic produce from New Zealand to the UK (most is shipped – ed), the move is a sign that the so-called 'food miles' debate is not going away.


Mr Voss said the real worry is that there could be a wider move to restrict organic exports to the UK, if British government authorities decide to get on the bandwagon against food imported from overseas.


"We can't underestimate the level of concern about these issues in the UK. This means we have to be vigilant,” he said.


Serious chance of a ban               UK Soil Association director Patrick Holden told the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme: "We wouldn't have embarked upon it (a review) if there wasn't a very serious chance of it ending up with a ban,” the OANZ newsletter reported.


Mr Holden believes Britain should aim to produce most of its organic food domestically and import as little as possible. 


"Overall, the carbon footprint of air-freighting is greater to such a large degree than land transport that we think there is a pretty strong case for looking at a ban very seriously,"  he said.


NZ Govt monitoring food miles issue            OANZ said the New Zealand government has been aware of the food miles threat since 2005, well before it hit the media headlines. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade set up a Food Miles Group two years ago, to monitor and protect the interests of New Zealand exporters.


The group has 25 representatives from government agencies, industry and individual exporters, and meets regularly to share information about food-mile developments and to discuss approaches to dealing with food miles.


Organic uses 15 per cent less                     Studies show that, on average, organic farming requires about 15% less energy to produce the same amount of food. So this should be in its favour as concern about climate change increases, OANZ said.


National Trade Spokesperson, Tim Groser, former Chair of the WTO Agriculture Negotiations has expressed concern that the UK Soil Association’s “might be going down this false path of food miles.”


“Quite apart from being almost certainly a wrong interpretation of the whole environmental impacts issue and potentially very serious for our fledgling organic industry, if applied to all imports could have appalling results on developing countries” he said.


Developing countries                  He said there was a clear trend towards a number of developing countries  (particularly in Africa) taking advantage of the European vegetable market.


For example, almost all the haricots fines available in Switzerland where Mr Groser spent 11 years living in Geneva, are these days air freighted from Kenya.


“Not all of these will be organic, but they have the capacity to respond to market demand from Europe, just as we do,” he said.


UK Soil Association to consult                   In its press release on January 27, the Soil Association Standard's Board said it has decided it will consult on a range of options to tackle the environmental impact of airfreighting organic food.

”The board will publish a consultation paper outlining options ranging from labelling produce and carbon offsetting to an outright ban on airfreighting.”


This outline document would lead to a formal recommendation given to the Soil Association elected council within 12 months, the association said.


As an independent certification body, the Soil Association would introduce through its standards “whatever measures are deemed appropriate” – regardless of any parallel actions taken by the British Government or the European Union.

Strong demand to reduce food miles                  "There is a strong demand, from the public and many of our licensees, to reduce food miles," Mr Holden said at the Soil Association conference in Cardiff.


Although there was very little airfreighting of organic produce, the association believed there was an urgent need to do everything it could to reduce the carbon emissions that are contributing to climate change.


Equity and ethical trading issues                            “This is a complex issue though: especially for producers in developing countries where it involves equity and ethical trading issues, and that's why we shall actively engage a wide-range of stakeholders to ensure we get it right.”

The Soil Association, and the organic farming movement, must continue to lead the way on practical measures to tackle the impact of food production and distribution on climate change, and work towards a climate friendly food and farming future, Mr Holden said.

Life-cycle studies for the Government show that, on average, organic farming requires about 15% less energy to produce the same amount of food. Typically organic farming is around 30% more energy efficient, but it is less energy efficient for poultry and glasshouse vegetables. The main reason for its lower energy use is because it uses natural rather than industrial processes, in particular not using energy-intensive fertilisers.

See what NZ Soil and Health and the NZ Green Party have said about the UK Soil Association’s plans:


Organic Farming Offers Solutions to Food Miles


Food Miles Issue Heats Up


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