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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 December 2007, 14:53 GMT
The carbon cost of Christmas cherries

By Jeremy Cooke
BBC News rural affairs correspondent

Christmas pudding
Christmas food is now grown by farmers from across the world
It is really not that long ago that the seasons dictated what fresh fruit we ate and when we ate it.

But go into any of our UK supermarkets today and you will see a huge selection of "out of season" produce.

Take cherries for instance. Britain's freezing orchards are bare at this time of year. But still you will have no problem finding delicious fresh cherries on the shelves.

The trouble is that the cherries we enjoy in December have to be shipped from the southern hemisphere. Many come from Chile which is some seven and a half thousand miles from the UK.

And some environmentalists insist it is plain madness that, in a time of global warming, we transport a non-essential luxury-food item half way across the world.

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The Soil Association's director Patrick Holden says that consumers need to think hard before buying produce like out of season cherries.

"As consumers and as citizens we ought to go into the shops and think about buying fresh, in-season, locally grown food first.

"If we want to indulge our selves with cherries on the cake, perhaps [that's OK] occasionally. But our staples should be near to where we live."

Viewed from Chile of course it all looks very different. About an hour's drive out of Santiago the Lomas del Valuarte orchard is tucked beneath the foothills of the snow-capped Andes.

It is mid-summer here and dozens of workers are harvesting some 70 tonnes of cherries from 20,000 trees.

Much of the produce is destined for the UK market. The orchard is regularly inspected by representatives from our own big supermarkets.

LOW-CARBON CHRISTMAS
Christmas decorations
Plan Christmas dinner carefully to reduce wasted food
Compost vegetable peelings
Use energy efficient LED lights and turn them off overnight
Give unwanted gifts to charity, local hospitals or hospices
Try to buy from local organic suppliers
Here they know that in Europe the "food miles" debate is raging. But they insist that this is simply a question of supply and demand - giving British consumers what we want.

Christian Carvajal - who represents Chile's fruit exporters - told me: "Chilean cherries arrive during the Christmas period. Does the housewife or consumer in the UK not want to receive these cherries?"

I put it to him that because there is a demand does not necessarily mean it is right to supply that demand.

His response: "This industry generates a lot of jobs. There has to be a balance between caring for the environment, social responsibility and economic growth. We are a developing country."

Precarious jobs

In the San Fernando fruit packing plant you get a real sense of the scale of this industry.

In a giant, brightly-lit room six hundred workers - mainly women - work on each shift sorting and grading the cherries.

In Chile now there are some half a million workers employed directly in the fresh fruit business.

And if we in Europe turn our backs on their produce, these are the jobs on the line.

And for people like Fernanda that would be bad news. She has come to rely on her work in the plant.

We cannot allow you people to go six months of the year eating only potatoes and cabbage, the traditional European food of the past
Chilean agriculture minister

"I am operating a production line which is great," she says. "My job here really helps my family. I now have my own house and I can pay for it because of my work.''

But it is the next part of the process which is at the centre of the environmental concerns.

For Chilean cherries to get into our supermarkets they have to be packed into refrigerated containers loaded onto ships and then transported some 7,500 miles through the Panama canal and across the Atlantic.

Environmentalists say this cannot be justified. But in Chile they insist that transport by sea is a much greener option than by air.

The agriculture minister says his country is simply giving people the produce that we want - and that we need.

"We cannot allow you people to go six months of the year eating only potatoes and cabbage, the traditional European food of the past."

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
The cherry trade from Chile to the UK



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