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January 28, 2009

UK Soil Association 'gives in' to supermarket lobby over air-freighted organic food

Keith Abel, co-founder of organic fruit-and-vegetable delivery service Abel & Cole, is disappointed with the Soil Association's decision to accept air-freighted produce. The organic food watchdog has denied claims that its decision to let air-freighted food carry the organic label represents a surrender to the supermarket lobby.

The Soil Association launched a consultation into the environmental damage caused by air-freighting organic produce in 2007, in which an outright ban was considered an option.
It argued that transporting fruit and vegetables by air generated 177 times as much greenhouse gas as sending the same produce by sea.

But the watchdog has ruled out a ban on air-freighted goods, prompting speculation it has caved in to pressure from supermarket chains. The Soil Association has denied this, saying talks with African farmers about the social benefits of organic farming in the region had driven the decision to allow air-freighted goods to keep the organic seal.

Technical Director Francis Blake said: ‘Whilst six supermarkets were among over 300 respondents to the consultation, what influenced the decision most were contacts with the African organic farming organisations who felt requiring such certification would impose additional and unnecessary burdens on their members without any added benefit.

‘Therefore we will be working with these organisations on a number of initiatives to enhance and expand the environmental and social benefits of organic farming in Africa. We look forward to being able to announce progress on this in the future.’

The pro-aviation coalition Flying Matters welcomed the watchdog's decision. Chairman Brian Wilson said: ‘This is a significant victory for common sense over ill-considered environmental faddism. The idea of telling Third World producers that they could not send us fresh produce on planes, with value added in their own countries, reeked of old-style protectionism.’

But some members of the organic community disregarded the argument that air-freighting is beneficial to struggling African farmers.

Keith Abel, founder of organic food supplier Abel & Cole, said: ‘To say we must sustain these livelihoods is like saying we should sustain the livelihoods of easyJet pilots and take £15 flights to Barcelona every Friday. Being in the organic movement involves some sacrifices and means eating with the seasons.’

Both Sainsbury's and Tesco said they supported air freight because poor African farmers relied on it to get their produce to Britain in prime condition.

And a spokesman for Waitrose said: ‘Some of our produce cannot be grown in the UK and we believe it is vital to understand the positive benefits of trading with producers in developing countries and supporting local communities. We believe that air freight should only be used when road, rail and sea options have been fully considered and discounted.’

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