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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 October 2007, 05:34 GMT 06:34 UK
Climate change trumps organic farmers
By Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Organic food stall
The UK's organic food sector is worth 1.9bn

The Soil Association has decided to make it much harder for companies that import goods by air to meet its certification standards. It is a complex debate.

The one thing you can guarantee at a Soil Association press conference is the quality of the food.

Crunchy bacon sandwiches, melting mushroom rolls and warm muffins - the press office knows the lure of a hearty breakfast will motivate otherwise reluctant journalists to attend an early press conference.

The food on offer was mostly produced in the UK. But the subject of the meeting was organic food which is air freighted into this country. It is just 1% of the 2bn organic market, but it is growing.

Air freight won't be possible in the future - it'll be far too expensive
Peter Melchett, Soil Association

For years there has been a debate about whether there should be room for air freighted produce in the organic sector.

A movement which prides itself on its high ethical standards should not, some argue, be part of a business which relies so heavily on fossil fuels.

So, the association has come up with much tougher standards, that anyone who is importing goods by air will have to meet if they are to be awarded Soil Association certification in future.

Firstly, importing businesses will have to do more than just trade with organic farmers in the developing world.

They will have to show they are helping those communities develop, for example by building roads, or helping provide clean water or electricity.

Shoppers in Whole Foods Market store
People in the south of England are the UK's biggest organic food fans

Secondly, companies will have to show they are helping farmers reduce their dependence on UK markets.

"Air freight won't be possible in the future - it'll be far too expensive," says Peter Melchett, the Soil Association's policy director.

"We have to make sure they're ready for that time. It's irresponsible to encourage farmers to build on the future use of air freight," he added.

Throughout the press conference, Ernest Abloh's phone rings constantly.

It is the farmers he represents in Ghana, desperate to know if the Soil Association was still allowing air freighted produce.

Markets threatened

Banning air freighted organic goods, according to Mr Abloh, would be "a disaster". He says the difference the organic money has made to his community has been huge: "roads, electricity, hospitals", and there is no other source of income.

He is pleased with the decisions to carry on allowing imports, but is worried about the future.

It seems the association will be moving towards phasing out air freighted produce, and Mr Abloh says there is no market for relatively expensive organic produce in Ghana itself.

The announcement is the first step for the association; more talks will follow with importers.

But the time may come when there will be no air freighted produce for journalists to devour at the Soil Association press conferences of the future.

Organic food sales hit 2bn in UK
31 Aug 07 |  Business
Organic food imports under fire
26 Jan 07 |  Business

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