`Food miles dilemma' hits organic shopping

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The Independent Online
SATURDAY IS the day when people who buy organic or ethically sourced food can do the most damage to the planet. On the supermarkets' busiest day of the week, shoppers across the country are faced with what is being called the "food miles dilemma".

Do you choose that packet of organic green beans flown from Africa on a CO2 emitting aircraft? Or should the shopper pick British produce, which might not be organic and laden with pesticides?

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), the charity that publishes lists of fish to avoid in order to protect over-fished British waters, made matters worse last week. It endorsed two types of fish as being acceptable alternatives for domestic consumers - pacific cod and South African hake, both of which rack up large "food miles".

Now the society and the Soil Association, which the Government uses to license organic food, have disclosed that they are considering taking food miles into account when giving guidance to ethically concerned consumers. Such change could lead to changes in labelling or the removal of products from approved lists.

The food miles dilemma is heightened by the fact that the Government has itself set a target of reducing all food imports to about 30 per cent by 2010. One analysis of a basket of 26 imported organic items found that they had travelled the equivalent of six times around the equator.

Although imports of organic food have steadily reduced over the past few years, they remained static at 56 per cent in 2003-04; a fifth of all organic meat in the UK is imported. But at the same time, supermarkets, having dramatically increased their sales of organic food, are now finding that, as the market increases overall, their share is slipping.

According to Soil Association figures, sales of organic produce grew by 10 per cent last year to pounds 1.2bn, but the supermarket share dropped by 1 per cent for the second year running while sales through box schemes and farmers markets have increased by 16 per cent.

Keith Abel, of the London-based organic delivery scheme Abel and Cole, which has a strict "no airfreight" policy, said he found the sale by supermarkets of such produce offensive. He said: "I think the Soil Association could do more. I think they should implement a no-air freight policy but they are nervous about offending supermarkets who frankly don't care where their produce comes from as long as it sells.''

Abel and Cole do sell out- of-season or exotic items, such as lemons or avocados, but they import them by road or sea. He said: "These are pretty efficient methods and we believe is a reasonable compromise."

Sustain, which campaigns for ethical farming, warns that as road freight increases and people drive further to shop in supermarkets, it is even more important to reduce the food miles of what consumers buy.

Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, said: "We do not take into account how far food has travelled, but we might well do in the future ... We are sensitive to the issue.''

Dawn Bache, of the MCS, said: "Our priority has been about making sure people are aware about issues of sustainability and educating people about alternatives ... But the issue of food miles is something that we will be considering in the future to make sure that consumers are fully informed.''

Leading article, page 36


Organic Green Beans (Kenya) pounds 1.09/160g. Food miles: 4,200. Flown, usually by airfreight, from Africa. But being organic, free from pesticides and preservatives. Certified by the Soil Association; or ...

Green Beans (UK) Cost: pounds 1.49/500g. Food miles 200? Farmed in Britain, but since supermarkets tend to buy centrally, will have racked up considerable road miles. But non-organic and since they are seasonal, not always available.

Alaskan Salmon Cost: pounds 18.99/kg. Food miles: 4,400. Fished in the clear waters of the Northern Pacific in a sustainable fishery. One of the oily fishes doctors tell us to eat once a week. And it's expensive; or ...

Scottish Farmed Salmon Cost: pounds 6.9/kg. Food miles 350. Scottish fish farms have earned a reputation for pollution, overcrowding and damage to shellfish. And the taste is nowhere near as good.

Organic Baby Sweetcorn (Thailand) Cost: 99p/125g. Food miles: 8,000. Some say they are tasteless, but if your children like them, any vegetable is better than none; or ...

Corn on the Cob (UK) Cost: pounds 1.28 for two. Food miles: varies. No baby sweetcorn is domestically produced; the large version is only available for a short summer season.

New Zealand Hoki Cost: pounds 1.49 for 10 fish fingers. Food miles: 14,000. Now recommended as an alternative to over-fished North Atlantic cod but some argue the fishery cannot be sustained because the Hoki is a slow-growing fish; or ...

Monkfish Cost: pounds 18.99/kg. Food miles: 300. There is increasing evidence this has been overfished; the Marine Conservation Society says it should be avoided.