Retailers recognise the need for a more consistent approach to air freight but believe it should be linked to an "overarching environmental strategy", including measures to tackle poverty among producers, according to a report from the Food Ethics Council.
Action on food air miles should be allied to measures to tackle water scarcity and improve labour standards, said the report, Flying Food - Responsible Retail in the Face of Uncertainty.
Only 1% of all food was carried by air but it accounted for 11% of total food transport greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), according to the report, which was compiled after consultation with five retailers and a workshop with civil society groups.
Food air miles rose 11% in 2005-06, it said, predicting freight traffic would increase by 6.1% a year over the next 20 years. However, at 0.3%, air-freighted food makes a much smaller contribution to total UK emissions than meat and dairy production at 8%, fresh fruit and vegetables at 2.5%, refrigeration at 3.5% or alcoholic drinks at 1.5%.
The report said retailers should avoid "carbon hypocrisy" where air-freighted produce is replaced with more GHG-intensive substitutes, even if they have travelled "fewer food miles".
Improved planning would reduce emergency "top-ups" where air freight is used to fill unexpected gaps on shelves.
"The debate on air freight has matured. We're setting out steps for retailers to follow that will make the situation better for the environment, for development and for consumers," said report author Tom MacMillan.