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1.1 Questioning food miles

Do you think food products should be transported by air? State a range of reasons for and against the air freight of food products.

The Soil Association consultation

In 2007, the Soil Association - the organisation responsible for certifying organic produce in the UK - launched a consultation into the environmental impact of organic produce that is air-freighted to the UK from other countries. The consultation was a response to concerns about the increasing contribution of air freight to climate change. The key issue at stake was whether air freight should be addressed in the Soil Association's organic standards. The debate raised the question of whether 'organic' certification should be removed from goods that have been air-freighted to the UK. This was the first time that the Soil Association had considered applying standards relating to transport and climate change, and the consultation proved to be a significant - and controversial - exercise.

The consultation was prompted by concerns that, whilst air freight currently accounts for a very small proportion (less than 1%) of all organic food imports to the UK, the air-freight industry - and the air-transport industry more generally - are growing rapidly in response to strong, sustained demand. Air freight allows fresh food to be carried thousands of miles around the world in a matter of hours, with the result that a wide variety of products can be stocked on supermarket shelves throughout the year. Air freight is particularly useful for transporting highly perishable organic fresh fruit and vegetables, year-round, as supermarkets attempt to ensure the continuous availability to consumers of the freshest and most exotic produce. Air freight also enables importers to respond to unexpected shortfalls in supply or surges in demand - and so to meet the UK consumer demand for year-round fresh produce.

Food miles and climate change

Yet, because air transport is dependent on the use of fossil fuels – and is responsible for an increasing share of global carbon dioxide emissions – there are concerns that the air freight of organic produce is making a growing contribution to climate change. Compared with other forms of transport, air transport has a significant impact on our climate. Furthermore, air freight is the most rapidly growing method of food transport; the air freight of food to the UK increased by 140% between 1992 and 2002 and is still increasing. Whilst air freight is currently responsible for less than 1% of total UK food miles, it produces 11% of the carbon dioxide emissions from UK food transport. A consignment transported by air has a much greater climate impact than the same consignment carried by sea.

In response to such concerns, the Soil Association considered a range of options for addressing the environmental impact of air-freighted organic food. Those options including taking no action; introducing new procedures for labelling air-freighted organic produce so that consumers can make more informed choices about the issue; using carbon offsetting schemes; and imposing a partial or general ban of air-freighted organic produce. Of those options, the introduction of a general ban received the greatest support from members of the general public, from some environmentalist groups (including Greenpeace), and from some organic producers. Some people argued that imposing a general ban on the air freight of organic produce would also bring other benefits for people in the UK, including a general reduction in air-traffic levels and in road congestion (because air freight tends to drive airport expansion).