The Soil Association’s Standards Board  is today [25 Oct 2007] announcing proposed changes to the Soil Association’s standards to ensure 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 will have to meet the Soil Association’s own Ethical Trade standards  or the Fairtrade Foundation’s standards. The new air freight standards will also require our licensees to develop plans for reducing any remaining dependence on air freight. The details of the proposal will be open to further consultation during 2008, and will 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. The Soil Association’s 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. For a small number of organic producers there are no available alternative markets offering the same development returns.
Anna Bradley, chair of the Soil Association’s 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 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.
“We also want the public to have clear and meaningful information about both the environmental and social impact of air freighted organic food. That’s why 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 Standards Board will consider implementing carbon labelling within our standards for all organic goods - not just air freighted produce - when a good scheme is available.  In the interim, we will be publishing information about air freight drawing on the material we have gathered during the consultation. We will also now consult on whether and if so what, additional and potentially interim means are available to provide consumers with information that will allow them to make informed decisions - from education to labelling.”
Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director added:
“This far-reaching consultation supports our view that it is right to continue to allow some organic air freight, but only with these new and demanding requirements. 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.  There’s no doubt that encouraging organic farming brings very significant environmental and human health benefits for local people - latest UN statistics show a shocking 60 million people in developing countries suffer pesticide poisoning incidents each year thanks to non-organic agriculture. 
“We’ve noted the government’s speculative comments in the press as to what we are or are not going to do. The results of our very widespread consultation show that 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.” 
Ian Bretman, deputy director of the Fairtrade Foundation said:
“We’re very pleased that the Soil Association has acknowledged the importance of access to markets like Britain for millions of farmers and workers in developing countries seeking a sustainable livelihood. And we are delighted that they have further recognised the importance of Fairtrade as a complementary system to organic production as a means of ensuring that trade really does promote long-term sustainable development. We look forward to working with the Soil Association to realise the vision of Organic and Fairtrade becoming the norm for trade with developing countries in agricultural produce.”
The Soil Association’s overall objective is to ensure that organic food production makes a minimal contribution to and wherever possible helps curb climate change. 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. 
This proposed change is the result of the Soil Association Standards Board’s most extensive consultation on our standards, involving representatives from developing countries, environmental and development organisations, the general public, as well as our own members and licensees. 
 The Soil Association Standards Board: has an independent chair and is charged with consulting on and recommending standards proposals to the elected Soil Association Council.
 The Soil Association Ethical Trade standards: apply to the whole supply chain, and require fair trading arrangements, ethical employment relationships including fair pay, and concrete social and cultural contributions to the local community or society more widely. Those certified to these standards can use the Soil Associations Ethical Trade symbol. Being able to demonstrate compliance with Ethical Trade Standards (or Fairtrade standards) offers an effective marketing tool for air freighting businesses in the face of criticism over their carbon footprint.
Soil Association Ethical Trade standards:
Existing African business using air freight and meeting Ethical Trade Standards: Blue Skies is a Ghanaian based business that is dependent on air freight and already meets the Soil Association’s Ethical Trade standards. Specialising in the export of pre-cut, ready-to-eat fruit, Blue Skies employs over 1500 people and, through salaries alone, contributes around Ł2 million to the local economy. In the Central Region of Ghana, where unemployment is currently 70%, they have created vital jobs for farmers. Blue Skies’ achievements are seen as a model for development. In the Central Region the company has provided access to drinking water and built roads enabling farmers to trade and send their children to school. Blue Skies’ success is being used in Rwanda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe to promote development that adheres to high ethical, environmental and organic standards. In addition Blue Skies are helping to build organic skills and understanding in the area, skills which can be transferred and used more widely as local organic markets develop.
Ghanaian, Ernest Abloh, chief agronomist for Blue Skies in Ghana, will be attending the press briefing on Wednesday.
 Air freight is the fastest growing form of food transport: The perceived UK consumer demand for all year round fresh produce has seen air freight more than double since 1992 (albeit from a low base) and growth is predicted to continue. Air freight has become an integral part of the aviation industry. Less than 1% of organic imports come by air freight, the vast majority coming by sea, but air freight has the highest global warming potential of any form of transport. Although less than 1% of the total UK food miles, it is responsible for 11% of the CO2 emissions from UK food transport. Air freight can generate 177 times more greenhouse gas than shipping.
 Labelling: The Soil Association Standards Board agreed further consulting should be undertaken on the nature and mix of options available for the Soil Association to take action on consumer information and for labelling in the short- to medium-term.
 Exports building domestic markets: This summer in Kenya the East Africa Organic Standard was launched in response to growth of organic agriculture in Africa and the need to promote regional trade of organic products. The domestic market in Kenya now supplies restaurants, grocery shops, tourist lodges, hotels and now the two largest supermarket chains with organic products - http://www.kilimohai.org/standards.html
 Incidence of pesticide poisoning in developing countries: The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in Glasgow last week that 80% of poisoning cases take place in developing countries, and new work by the FAO (field surveys of self-reported occupational poisoning in developing countries) shows that “conservatively, over 60 million people (are) affected every growing season” and that in the FAO’s view, “an outrageously large proportion of those workers are children who are often more vulnerable to hazard and are poisoned at work.”
Peter Kenmore, Plant Production and Protection Division, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome, speaking at the British Crop Protection Council XVI International Plant Protection Congress in Glasgow, (16 Oct 2007).
 Government calls on Soil Association to leave things as they are’: Trade & development minister, Gareth Thomas, was quoted in The Guardian, [22 Oct 2007] ahead of the Soil Association announcement, speculating, “We oppose a general ban and we would be pretty worried by a selective ban too as it would penalise the very people it helps. Our view is the Soil Association should leave things as they are.”
 Organic farming’s contribution to curbing climate change: Energy Use in Organic Farming Systems’ (2000) Defra report OF0182. All other data from: Williams, A.G., Audsley, E. and Sandars, D.L. (2006) Determining the environmental burdens and resource use in the production of agricultural and horticultural commodities. Main Report. Defra Research Project IS0205. Bedford: Cranfield University and Defra.
 Consultation process: Launched in May 2007, the intensive 4-month period of public consultation on air freight, involved face-to-face discussions and 2 dedicated consultation seminars, including a key summit with over 100 delegates in July. We received over 200 written submissions, the majority from members and general public. We directly consulted nearly 100 representatives from industry, NGOs, and government, and also consulted Soil Association staff, committees, and council - receiving 24 submissions from NGOs, 28 from industry and 5 from government and international agencies. The notes from all these discussions and submissions were considered as formal contributions to the consultation.
In addition, the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations, commissioned research to look at the social and economic implications of the Soil Association implementing an air freight ban.
For more information on the air freight consultation visit: http://www.soilassociation.org/airfreight
To read the last two air freight press releases see below:
‘Soil Association summit aims to advance discussions on air freighting organic food’ (17 July 2007)
‘Soil Association looks at options to tackle the impact of organic air freight’ (29 May 2007)