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March 24, 2008

British airlines support African farmers in food miles controversy

Two of Britain’s biggest airlines are joining forces with African farmers to fight environmental restrictions on food transported by air.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, which make millions of pounds from flying food in passenger jets, have given free tickets to representatives of farmers in Ghana and Kenya to visit London to argue their case.

The airlines are planning to make a joint submission with the farmers to a review of air freight by the Soil Association, which certifies around 70 per cent of organic food sold in Britain.

The association has proposed new conditions for farmers and wholesalers who want to continue to be certified as organic. They will have to publish a plan for reducing their use of air freight and also achieve “fair-trade” status by investing in education and welfare schemes for their workers.

The airlines fear that the conditions would result in less organic food travelling by air and could result in a general decline in perishable goods being flown to Britain.

The movement of food by air to Britain more than trebled between 1992 and 2006, with an additional 24,000 tonnes carried in 2006 alone. More than 60 per cent travelled in the holds of passenger aircraft. BA carries 100,000 tonnes of fresh produce a year, mainly from Africa and South America, and food accounts for a sixth of its cargo business.

The association says that transporting produce by air generates 177 times more greenhouse gases than sending it by ship. But pineapples grown in Ghana and green beans from Kenya would arrive in supermarkets much less fresh if they spent days or weeks in a shipping container.

Flying Matters, which campaigns for the expansion of aviation and is funded by airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers, is holding a meeting in London on March 31 to draw up a response to the association’s proposal. The African farmers’ representatives will attend the meeting alongside figures from the aviation industry.

Michelle Di Leo, director of Flying Matters, said: “Criticism of air-freighted fresh produce is completely disproportionate to the impact it has on the environment. The people producing these vegetables have one of the lowest carbon footprints of anybody. The association’s proposals are the direct result of campaigning by anti-aviation groups and mean the very people they profess to want to save from climate change tomorrow will be the ones to pay the price in lost livelihoods today.”

More than 21,000 people in developing countries depend on Soil Association-certified, air-freighted organic produce for their livelihoods.

Gareth Thomas, the Trade and Development Minister, criticised the association’s proposal, saying it would be too expensive for some African producers to achieve fair-trade status.

But Lord Melchett, the association’s policy director, said shoppers who bought organic produce would want the label to mean that workers had been treated properly, not just that the produce had been grown without harmful fertilisers and pesticides.

The Times UK

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