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FEATURE - Organic food-hungry Britons pile on the air miles

16.10.2002
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FEATURE - Organic food-hungry Britons pile on the air miles
LONDON - If you believe the organic salad you just ate was good for you and for the environment, think again. Chances are, its ingredients flew half way across the world, polluting the air and burning more energy than was saved in growing them.
Environmentalist groups say that by eating tomatoes and lettuce from New Zealand and Zambia, consumers are effectively eating oil because of the vast amounts of energy spent in transporting them. And Britain is among the worst culprits because it imports more than three-quarters of its burgeoning organic food needs. \"More and more food is being trucked, shipped and flown around the world these days, consuming huge amounts of fuel,\" said Vicki Hird, policy director at the British eco-group Sustain. \"Organic produce is more eco-sustainable but its benefits are undermined by flying the food around the world. You spend more energy transporting it than is saved in its production.\" A report released by Sustain this year found that for every calorie contained in that lettuce from the United States, 130 calories of fuel will have been burnt in bringing it to Britain. A Sustain case study also showed that a basket of 26 imported organic foods could have travelled 240,000 km (150,000 miles) and released as much carbon dioxide as an average home does by cooking meals over eight months. This applies to non-organic food too. Getting that mozzarella and couscous to British diners eats up 1.6 billion litres of fuel a year, emitting four million tonnes of carbon dioxide. \"People have been led to believe they can have fresh food all year round, not just in-season,\" Hird said. \"They want strawberries at Christmas so they are flown in from California.\" ORGANIC FARMING STUMBLES IN BRITAIN Annual retail sales of organic food in Britain are about one billion pounds, 10 times higher than 1993 and growing by 30 percent a year. But only a quarter is grown at home. France in contrast, imports just 10 percent of its needs. \"Farmers do not yet have the confidence to convert their production,\" Hird said. \"We need an action plan to give farmers resources and training to move to organic production.\" Environmentalists blame also supermarket chains, which they say encouraged the organic boom but failed to encourage local industry by guaranteeing farmers higher prices for the produce. They say for instance that Britain\'s largest food retailer Tesco plans to grow organic sales five-fold to one billion pounds by 2006 but still sources 75 percent of produce abroad. \"Most of the big supermarkets don\'t seem prepared to play their part...If supermarkets are going to keep buying imported organic food, farmers here will be wary of converting,\" said Sandra Bell, food campaigner for the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth. As an example, FOE says one chain sources organic butter from Denmark even though organic milk is plentiful in Britain. Meanwhile, the supermarkets\' distribution systems mean that even domestic food may travel the length and breadth of the country before coming back to a store near the farm where it was grown. SUPERMARKETS STARTING TO SLOWLY ACT Many chains are now starting to address the issue. Waitrose now sources 85 percent of its organic food from Britain, while 60 percent of Marks and Spencer\'s organic food is from British farmers. Sainsbury\'s pledges to reduce organic food imports to 45 percent by 2004. Sainsbury\'s Environment Manager Alison Austin said her company had substantially cut food miles and boosted the proportion of locally grown organic and non-organic food. \"In 2000-2001 we sourced 3.5 percent more products with 0.2 million less kilometres travelled,\" Austin told Reuters. \"One big driver is that our costs are reduced by doing this so there is a huge business case to cut down on food miles.\" The company now buys only British poultry, eggs and dairy products. It says it also is trying to sell produce close to their place of origin - for instance supplying the south of England with vegetables grown in the southern counties of Sussex and Surrey. \"We found that whenever possible, people are keen to buy local produce,\" Austin said. Tesco spokesman John Church said his company now sourced 97 percent of its meat within Britain and bought only British organic chicken, eggs and milk. He said Tesco had also changed its distribution system to cut down on food miles. But Church said Tesco would cut imports only when it could source locally grown food on a regular and affordable basis. \"We need to strike a balance - meet customer\'s demands as well as minimise the impact on the environment,\" Church said. \"Currently, it is impossible to source all our food locally - it\'s just a simple case of there not being enough British organic food. And we will have to import out-of-season foods.\" One major development is that consumers themselves have started seeking out fresh local food. There are now about 400 farmers\' markets in Britain, up from none just a decade back. CONSUMERS SPOILT FOR CHOICE Environmentalists concede it will be impossible to persuade people to eschew out-of-season imported produce. Such an action could also hurt poor countries reliant on food exports. But the other side of the coin is that the food trade hurts exporters and importers alike by contributing to climate change. In poor countries it reduces local food security and fosters dependency on one or two exported commodities, studies show. \"If climate change accelerates, countries in the south will be severely affected, including the ability to produce food,\" Sustain said. The air-freight boom of recent decades is partly because aviation fuel is not taxed, making it cheaper and more attractive to import food, said FOE\'s Bell. Environmentalist groups want a jet fuel to be taxed to make airfreight costlier and boost marine transport of food, which emits 50 times less carbon dioxide than aviation. For items that must be imported, a system of fair trade is needed, they say. \"More trade means more food transport, more fuel consumption and more environmental and social damage, Sustain\'s Hird said. \"We have to get people back in touch with the food they eat.\" Story by Sujata Rao REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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