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UK Government to look at air freight labelling of food

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The UK Government has unveiled a plan to introduce a carbon footprint label to be displayed on products on UK supermarket shelves.

Greenhouse rating
Products will display labels showing the greenhouse gas emissions created by their production, transport and eventual disposal, similar to the calorie or salt content figures on food packaging, theUK Soil and Health Association reports.

The Government's environment minister, Ian Pearson, said ministers would consult with the Carbon Trust and BSI British Standards to develop a system for measuring carbon footprints during the next 18 months. The system will be used by businesses to calculate the impact of their goods and label them accordingly.

The UK's biggest retailer, Tesco, said earlier this year it would put carbon labels on all its products, and is also working to cut the average energy use of all its buildings. Marks & Spencer also said  it aims to be carbon neutral in five years, but would use carbon offsetting as a last resort.

In March, Marks and Spencer introduced labels on some foods which had been imported by air. The label, a small aeroplane symbol with the words "air freighted", appeared on 20 products and will be extended to another 130 by the end of the year, the Guardian reported.

NZ organic exporters nervous
Organic Aotearo NZ (OANZ) said NZ organic exporters are getting increasingly nervous as the ‘food miles’ issue in Britain appears to be stepping up a gear.

The UK Soil Association announced this week (May 31) it would begin consulting with registered organic producers in the UK and overseas, supermarkets and other stakeholders about a set of proposals for handling organic food imported from overseas.

The air freight consultation, which will continue until the end of September, will look at ways of reducing or eliminating the environmental impact of organic air freight.

UK Soil and Health wide ranging consultation
"This is the first time the Soil Association has engaged in such a wide-ranging public discussion on a change to its organic standards as far reaching as this." the association said.

The question of what to do about air freight brings together the important issues of climate change, ethical trade, global justice and international development. The association would be consulting development charities, environmentalists, organic consumers, organic businesses in the UK and abroad, and a wide range of other interested parties, it said.

The association Standards Board chairperson Anna Bradley said that while reducing impact on the world's climate, the association must also carefully consider the social and economic benefits of air freight for international development and growth of the organic market as a whole.

Five options to be considered
The association is looking at five options, from taking no action, to a general ban, a selective ban, labelling airfreight and carbon offsetting.

The association notes that international trade in organic food has helped the UK's organic market grow and can be a catalyst for organic movements elsewhere in the world. Certain organic products will be on the shelves all year round, competing with their non-organic counterpart. In addition, air freight enables producers in developing countries to access high value export markets, providing vitally needed jobs and opportunities to add value.

General ban
A general ban could potentially inhibit growth of the organic market and attract criticism from the countries affected and from development organisations. Focusing on air freight could be considered disproportionate and unfair when the majority of the CO2 emissions from UK food transport occurs on UK roads.

However, the projected growth of the aviation industry is a threat to efforts to mitigate climate change. To tackle climate change effectively "we need to urgently reduce emissions from all sectors. Banning air freight would send a clear message that transporting food by air is unsustainable."

"This could be part of a strategy for encouraging developing countries to establish patterns of sustainable agriculture. This approach could be more in line with the expectations consumers have of organic food." the association said.

Or selective ban
The practicalities of implementing a selective ban could be considerable involving social or political judgements that are extremely difficult for an organic certification body to make. However, such a ban would enable air freight in justifiable situations.

"For example these could be for guaranteeing all year round supply or where there are development benefits in the producing country."

Labelling air freight carried the risk of not distinguishing between air freight in different situations but would give the benefit of giving people in the UK the choice to eat out-of-season produce whilst bringing to their attention the environmental impact of doing so.

Carbon offsetting option
Critics of carbon offsetting say it detracts from the pressing need to reduce emissions. On the other hand a government approved carbon offset scheme might be a useful tool for mitigating the environmental impact of aircraft.

The association has two licensees that air freight organic food to the UK, Blue Skies and Organic Farm Foods. Blue Skies exports pre-cut, ready-to-eat fruit from Nsawam, Ghana where they employ over 1500 people and, through salaries alone, contribute around £2 million to the local economy. Organic Farm Foods, based in the UK, import large quantities of organic fruit and vegetables.

The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic