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UK organic standard revamp geared to exclude NZ airfreighted organics

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The UK Soil Association is proposing that organic food is only air freighted to the UK "if it delivers genuine benefits for farmers in developing countries."

In future, air freighted organic food would have to meet the Soil Associationís own Ethical Trade standards or the Fairtrade Foundationís standards, the Soil Association said.

The new air freight standards will also require UK Soil Association licensees to develop plans for reducing any remaining dependence on air freight.

NZ favours "life cycle" measurement
Organics Aotearoa NZ made a submission to the UK association on air freighted organic food, advocating for a "whole of life cycle" approach to greenhouse gas emissions and promoting overall carbon neutrality, rather than focusing solely on transport to market.

"While recognizing the desirability of a full life cycle analysis of carbon and carbon equivalent emissions, the Soil Association proposes that all air freighted products receiving their certification should meet their Ethical Trade standards (or an equivalent) by 2011," said OANZ.
"Even though few New Zealand organic products are currently air freighted to the UK, we know that a full life cycle analysis shows potential advantages for fresh New Zealand organic products over those grown in Europe and stored until their winter season."

OANZ to consider next move
OANZ Task Teams would consider what further action OANZ could take to ensure New Zealand organic producers are not left at a disadvantage, the November 2, 2007 newsletter said. 

In it's press release, the Soil Association said the details of the proposal would be open to further consultation during 2008, and would begin to take effect from January 2009.

"The Soil Association believes it is irresponsible for the UK Government and others to support a trade and development strategy that is heavily dependant on fossil fuels and which will further fuel dangerous climate change - predicted to hit Africa and other developing countries the hardest."

177 times more greenhouse gases than shipping
The Soil Association says its goal is to minimise the use of air freight, which generates 177 times more greenhouse gases than shipping, "and swamps any possible benefits from growing food in an environmentally-friendly way."

Less than 1% of organic imports come to the UK by air. However, 80% of air freighted organic produce coming into the UK is grown in low or lower-middle income countries.

Being able to export fresh organic fruit and vegetables provides significant economic, social and local environmental benefits, often for farmers with otherwise very low carbon footprints, the association says. 

"For a small number of organic producers there are no available alternative markets offering the same development returns."

Transition to alternative markets
Anna Bradley, chair of the Soil Associationís Standards Board said: "It is neither sustainable nor responsible 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."

Therefore, the Soil Association would be doing all it could to encourage farmers in developing countries to create and build organic markets that do not depend on air freight.

"We also want the public to have clear and meaningful information about both the environmental and social impact of air freighted organic food," she said. 

Carbon footprint measurement
The Soil Association is working with the Carbon Trust and the British Standards Institute to arrive at a reliable and comprehensive system of assessing the full carbon footprint of all food.

The association's standards board would consider implementing carbon labelling within its standards for all organic goods - not just air freighted produce - when a good scheme is available, she said. 

In the interim, it would publish information about air freight drawing on the material it has gathered during the consultation.

Consumer education and product labelling
The association would also look into additional ways to provide consumers with information which would allow them to make informed decisions - from education to labelling.

Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said the "far-reaching" consultation had supported their view that it was right to allow some organic air freight.

"We know from experience in more than one developing country that building organic production on the basis of exports can be an effective way of developing a much more sustainable local market for organic food,"  he said.

Pesticide poisoning in developing countries
Encouraging organic farming brought significant environmental and human health benefits for local people. The latest UN statistics showed 60 million people in developing countries suffer pesticide poisoning incidents each year through non-organic agriculture.  

He said the government had speculated in the media about what the association would do. The consultation process had shown most people "in the North and the South" say that they only support air freight if it delivers real environmental and social benefits.

"The linking of organic and ethical or Fairtrade standards does that. I challenge the Government to put their policies where their rhetoric is, and back this initiative,"  he said.

Fairtrade backs access to British market
Fairtrade Foundation deputy director Ian Bretman said the foundation was pleased the Soil Association had acknowledged the importance of access to markets like Britain for millions of farmers and workers in developing countries seeking a sustainable livelihood.

They had also recognised the importance of Fairtrade as a complementary system to organic production as a means of ensuring that trade promoted long-term sustainable development.

The Soil Association said its overall objective was to ensure organic food production made a minimal contribution to climate change and where possible helped to curb it.

Ongoing assessment of organic food
"This focus on air freight is part of our ongoing work to assess and reduce the life cycle impact on the climate of all organic farming and food."

Typically, organic farming uses 30% less energy than non-organic agriculture. 

The consultation involved representatives from developing countries, environmental and development organisations, the general public, and Soil Association members and licensees.

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