Leading article: The ethical dilemma posed by organic food

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The Independent Online

It is the thorny ethical debate that many in the environmental movement had been dreading: the question of whether organic food that has been airfreighted to the UK can be considered good for the environment. A growing amount of food on our supermarket shelves is organic. But some of it has been flown in from the other side of the world, releasing vast quantities of environmentally harmful greenhouse emissions. The fact that food from afar has been produced organically may be beneficial to the environment in which it was grown. But the very fact that it has reached UK shelves is frequently negative from the perspective of the planet's climate.

Another difficult ethical issue attaches to this. Much of the fruit and vegetables airfreighted into Britain is produced by poor farmers in developing countries. According to Action Aid, developing nations earn £3bn per year from goods sold in UK supermarkets. Moves to curb imports for environmental reasons would penalise some of the poorest people on the planet.

To its credit, the Soil Association, which certifies 75 per cent of organic food in the UK, has not ducked this ethical conflict of interest. In May, it launched a consultation on the question of whether it ought to address airfreight's contribution to climate change in itsorganic accreditation standards.

In one sense it is a rather academic question as far as the Soil Association is concerned. Only 1 per cent of organic imports are airfreighted at present. But the demand for airfreighted produce is predicted to continue growing. And so is the demand for organic food. This is a problem better addressed sooner than later.

Ultimately, it comes down to priorities. The overwhelming scientific consensus tells us that man-made global warming will be a disaster for agriculture across most of the planet. Wealthy and developing countries alike will be in serious trouble if temperatures rise significantly. For anyone concerned with preserving the environment, climate change must surely be the overriding priority. This throws some clarity on the plight of poor producers. Unless climate change is mitigated, agriculture in Africa could collapse, hurting local producers far more than a ban on airfreighted exports.

The Government should, of course, be taxing airline fuel to remove the massive hidden subsidies that food importers enjoy. But what should the individual consumer do? And what guidance should the Soil Association give? This is trickier because the Soil Association, unlike the Government, does not have the power to address the problems of climate change, trade reform and environmental protection holistically. There is a risk that refusing to certify any airfreighted organic goods would merely damage farmers in poor countries and provide negligible benefit for the environment.

The Soil Association announces today that it will issue a partial ban on airfreighted imports. Produce will not be given organic accreditation unless its suppliers can show that they are delivering benefits for their farmers and unless they pledge to reduce their reliance on airfreighted exports by 2011. This seems a reasonable compromise, although there are bound to be howls of disapproval from those who believe the Soil Association should take a tougher, or more lenient, line. It sends out a strong signal of bias against airfreighting, but does not close the door on developing world producers, giving them time to find closer markets.

Consumer pressure is a powerful force in democratic societies. But it is not all-powerful. In the end, the issues of international development, trade reform, environmental protection and climate change require concerted and co-ordinated action from governments. That is where the ethical spotlight should be directed next.