The Soil Association has tabled the controversial proposals in response to concerns that labelling overseas produce as organic could increase the volume of air freight and with it carbon emissions. Banning it from carrying the logo is not the answer, however, argue the buyers on our panel.
All of them believe that air-freighted produce should be allowed to be labelled as organic and if it is not, the industry would be affected.
“If food meets the criteria for being organic, then it deserves to be marketed and sold as such so consumers can make their own decisions,” says one supermarket buyer. “If a bigger carbon footprint is on their conscience, then they may not buy it.”
Another warns: “If air-freighted products can no longer be labelled as organic, there is a danger of confusing the whole organic issue. Consumers buy organic because they believe it tastes better or because they want the safeguard that it has not been messed about with.”
It would be ridiculous to ban the logo from organic produce such as bananas and pineapples that can't be domestically grown, they add.
Most consumers say they're interested in local and organic and tend to associate the two, but when produce cannot be local, they will at least want assurances that it has been ethically produced - and the organic logo offers them this, they reason. Taking the logo away could undermine the whole organic movement and lead to falling sales.
“It's a real ethical dilemma because if consumers are buying organic they're environmentally friendly people,” he says. “If a product is labelled as having come from overseas, sales will go down. But if it isn't labelled as organic, sales will also go down because you are putting doubt in people's minds about how it is produced.”
The impact will depend on whether the consumer decides local or organic is more important - and if they decide local, whether they're really prepared to accept that certain foods will only be available on a seasonal basis.
“You have to ask yourself what the organic consumer is most concerned about,” says one buyer. “Is it the carbon footprint, provenance of food, local sourcing or paying the staff who grow it a decent living wage?”
Removing the organic label from imported food would also make it look as though there is less organic produce on shelf than there actually is.
Strong demand for organic has already put pressure on supply and buyers admit they are struggling to source sufficient UK supplies.
Growers of organic vegetables, in particular, are struggling to keep up with demand, and meat and dairy are also being flagged up as difficult to source nationally at times. “As a company, we work hard to reduce organic imports, particularly of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, but demand for organic food in some areas is outstripping supply,” says one buyer.
If the Soil Association goes ahead with the move, it would force buyers to try and source even more organic produce domestically, placing yet more pressure on supplies.
Many buyers are trying to increase local supplies of organic food but certainly not all. In fact, according to our survey, 60% of buyers do not actively try and source locally.
There is also the question of how important it is to consumers that organic produce is also local. A whopping 80% of the buyers on our panel believe that consumers are only a little concerned about organic food miles.
Part of the reason is demographic, argues one. “This issue isn't relevant everywhere,” he says. “People on a council estate aren't going to be as interested in where their food comes from as people who live in a more prosperous area and can afford to be more selective.
“We stock organic meat but we're really not selling very much of it. Other things are more high-profile at the moment, such as GDAs and packaging.”
For those consumers who are interested in ethical issues, locally sourced food is becoming a bigger draw than organic, observe others.
“It's ironic - for years we were told it was about price and volume and to concentrate on central distribution, but now it's more about local produce,” says one.
Paradoxically, while the shift in emphasis to local food is complicating the supply chain, it runs a serious risk of over-simplifying the issue of carbon emissions, according to our panel.
And the message that “local equals good and imported equals bad” will only be reinforced if the Soil Association decides to ban the use of an organic logo on air-freighted produce.
A decision is expected in the autumn after a public consultation.
If the move does get the green light, pity the poor oversees organic supplier whose produce has a lower carbon footprint than its UK counterpart.
The questions we asked:
1) Should the Soil Association be getting involved in whether air-freighted food should be labelled organic?
Yes 100% No 0%
2) Should organic food be allowed to be labelled as such if it is air freighted?
Yes 100% No 0%
3) If air-freighted foods can no longer be labelled as organic, how much will this affect the industry?
A lot 40% A little 60% Not at all 0%
4) Do you struggle to secure sufficient supplies for UK-grown organic products?
Yes 60% No 40%.
5) How concerned are consumers over organic food miles?
A lot 20% A little 80% Not at all 0%
6) Do you actively try and source local organic food where possible?
Yes 40% No 60%
Source: Online poll conducted by The Grocer