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Counting the Origin of Organics
Erica Barnett, 6 Nov 07
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The United Kingdom's Soil Association, which certifies 80 percent of the U.K.'s organic produce, released guidelines late last month governing how to incorporate the issue of air freight of foods into its certification process.

The problem, obviously, is that shipping produce by plane isn't really sustainable: the huge amount of greenhouse gas generated by air transport arguably cancels out the benefit of growing produce without artificial fertilizers or pesticides. On the other hand, most of the produce that's shipped to Europe comes from developing countries, mostly in Africa, raising the question of whether denying air-shipped organics the association's certification would hurt developing agricultural economies. (For an earlier back-and-forth on these points see Ethan's and Alex's posts on food miles.)

According to the Soil Association, despite the negative environmental impacts of shipping produce by air, it's also important to realize that "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." The chair of the group's standards board, Anna Bradley, was quoted by the BBC that "it is neither sustainable nor responsible to encourage poorer farmers to be reliant on air freight but we recognize that building alternative markets that offer the same social and economic benefits as organic exports will take time."

The Soil Association's interim solution? Requiring that all air-freighted organics meet the organization's Ethical Trade Standards. This balances the desire to bolster organic farming in developing nations with concerns about climate-disrupting emissions. The fair-trade standards require that farms guarantee fair wages and decent working conditions, and that they contribute to communities' and workers' social needs.

Of course, as Serious Eats notes, the really exceptional thing about the U.K.'s air-freighted organic standards isn't the standards themselves, but "the fact that there are any rules at all about produce delivery. The organic rules in the U.S. only refer to means of production, for instance the use of approved and forbidden pesticides." The U.K., in contrast, is looking at the entire chain of production -- a practice other nations might do well to emulate.

In other organics news, a four-year, $26 million study U.K. study found that organic fruits and vegetables contain as much as 40 percent more antioxidants, the chemicals believed to help the human body fight off cancer and heart disease, than conventional produce. That's the equivalent of an extra serving of fruits or vegetables every day. Organic milk, meanwhile, contained antioxidant levels as much as 80 percent greater than conventional milk. Just one more reason the health benefits of organics are more than worth spending a few extra dollars at the checkout.

Image credit: flickr/scorchez

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I think the Soil Association has over-reached itself. There is as yet no sensible or reliable way to measure the impact of food transportation. They should stick to dealing with certifying Organic in terms of production and wait for settled methods for determining transport impacts.

They are muddying the waters, confusing people and running the risk of subverting the Organic movement.

Guidelines such as these are tackling a completely different issue from the point of Organic food. If they really want to create a new definition of the phrase "produced Organically", they should actually create a 2nd parallel classification - "Carbon friendly" or similar.

Posted by: John Kazer on 8 Nov 07



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