(Beyond Pesticides, November 9, 2007) A British group that certifies 80 percent of the country’s organic product recently announced new requirements in order to market produce as organic. The Soil Association will eventually label air-freighted food as organic only if it also meets their fair trade standards. This announcement is part of a growing concern over the impact of air-freight on climate change and the overall carbon footprint of organic agriculture. It introduces “ethical standards” to organic certification, which is more narrowly defined in the United States by production practices like pesticide use.
The Soil Association’s long-term goal is to minimize air-freight, but the exception for fair-trade produce is designed to protect poor farmers in developing countries, particularly in Africa, where much of Britain’s organic produce originates. In their press release, the Soil Association said,
“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. For a small number of organic producers there are no available alternative markets offering the same development returns.”
As part of their long-term goals to move Britain away from dependency on air-freight, the Soil Association’s chair of their Standards Board, Anna Bradley, said, “the Soil Association will be doing all it can to encourage farmers in developing countries to create and build organic markets that do not depend on air freight.”
The success of the Soil Association’s plan depends, in part, on cooperation amongst trade organizations and organic advocates. Alexander Kasterine, of the International Trade Centre (ITC), points out, “The impact for farmers will depend on the degree to which UK retailers insist on SA certification. ITC urges retailers to . . . accept the EU-Defra standard which is provided by many other certifying bodies and focuses on organic production and processing, and does not stipulate conditions related to fair trade or airfreight.”
Arguments center around the ability of farmers to trade, regardless of fair trade certification, the relatively small percentage of carbon emissions caused by organic “food miles” (11 percent of the UK’s food transportation), and adding confusion to potentially misleading food labels. The Soil Association has said it will open a public comment period early in 2008 and post changes to the standards in January of 2009. Regardless of the final direction of their standards, the announcement highlights the increasing link between the organic food and climate change movements. This first attempt at reconciling their respective goals could be a sign of things to come for organic food.