UK backs African farmers in battle over imported produce

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Looking over his smallholding as the sun beats down, Kingoro Kairu hopes his cabbage, kale, and spinach will one day feed wealthy supermarket shoppers in Britain. Exporting surplus crops to the UK would generate valuable income to Mr Kairu and his family, who live on a one and a half-acre plot off a rutted mud road 15 miles from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The 55-year-old's hopes of building a better life through his leafy vegetables hinge on a decision in an office 4,000 miles away, at the headquarters of the Soil Association in Bristol. On Friday, the country's biggest organic body ends its four-month public consultation on whether it should stop certifying flown-in produce, or insist on warning labels to deter customers.

A ban has garnered strong support among environmentalists concerned that rapidly worsening climate change makes flying in food unsustainable, as well as inconsistent with the aims of the organic movement. But it would strike a blow against one million farmers and their dependants in the developing world who rely on airfreighting, especially if conventional retailers or continental organic organisations follow suit.

According to Mr Kairu, a ban would "shatter" the aspirations of members of the Wangige Organic Farmers' Group to which he belongs. "You start small and you hope to grow as you go," he said.

"I don't think people are aware of the life here and the problems we have."

In this, he and his fellow African farmers have the support of the British Government and the United Nations, which have assessed the environmental and economic impact of airfreighting. The Department for International Development warned only last week that food miles alone do not determine the environmental damage of food and praised organic air freight as a "trade success story" for Africa.

Three United Nations agencies – Unctad, its development arm, Unep, its environmental arm, and the International Trade Centre, run with the World Trade Organisation – point to academic studies last year which suggest that imported air-freighted products can have lower carbon emissions taking into account the energy used up in production.

A study by Lincoln University, in New Zealand, found that CO2 emissions from New Zealand lamb, milk and apples flown to the UK were lower than the equivalent products made in the country itself, largely because agriculture is more intensive in Britain.

Similarly, a study from Cranfield University, funded by the flower importer World Flowers, found that Kenyan roses for Sainsbury used five times less CO2 than roses grown in greenhouses in the Netherlands.

In any case, the UN said, even within the UK, subsidies support some forms of agriculture, such as beef, which emits three times more energy in production than cereals. In addition, it argued, UK farmers receive £2.8bn a year in farm subsidies which support the use of carbon-emitting agro-chemicals, fuel, electricity and gas. The UN protested: "It does not appear consistent to withdraw certification of air-freighted products while continuing certification of energy intensive UK organic produce."

If the Soil Association implemented a full ban next month, and retailers stop buying organic goods from Africa, more than 2,500 workers could lose their jobs in Kenya and Ghana, with the economic fallout hitting 15,000 dependants and tens of thousands of others.

The Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (Koan) wonders why air-freighted food from Africa may be banned while Britons take far more flights to destinations less than 500km away that could be reached by less polluting forms of transport. Wanjiru Kamau, the advocacy manager for Koan, called for research to clarify the overall carbon emitted by products grown in Kenya.

"We need some research to establish exactly from farm to plate what it is costing to produce a kilo of fine beans by the time it gets to the consumer compared to growing in the UK during winter... Until we get that kind of detail it would be unfair to say that because organic produce is being air-freighted to the UK, just looking at that air freight component. We don't use greenhouses to grow our crops."

Ernest Abloh, the chief agronomist for the importer Blue Skies Ghana, said a ban could change the way customers approach the environment by giving credence to misleading claims.