Airfreight of food

Sustain helps to facilitate discussions and policy development on sustainable food issues that can be complex to navigate and need input from a wide range of people and organisations. During 2006 and 2007, airfreight of food became a particularly controversial topic, so Sustain played a role in bringing together trade bodies, government and non-governmental organisations together to discuss the issues.

Aifreight and international development

In November 2006, Sustain's deputy coordinator Kath Dalmeny arranged a roundtable meeting for the Department for International Development (DfID) on airfreight of fresh horticultural produce from least developed countries. This brought together environment, development and consumer organisations to explore how climate change policies could be developed to ensure that least developed countries can still benefit from trade in agricultural products. Detailed notes from the seminar can be downloaded following the links below.

DfID Airfreight Meeting notes

PowerPoint presentations

  • Fair miles? The concept of “food miles” through a sustainable development lens - James MacGregor and Bill Vorley, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
    Download 1.34Mb ppt file
  • Analysis of environment and development trade-offs in fresh produce supply chains - Sarah Sim
    Download 73Kb ppt file
  • Flying produce: the greenhouse gas implications - Tara Garnett, Food Climate Research Network (FCRN)
    Download 68Kb ppt file
  • Food Miles and Developing Countries - Terri Sarch, Renewable Natural Resources and Agriculture Policy Team, Department for International Development (DfID) -
    Download 60Kb ppt file

Background materials

  • Supermarkets, smallholders and standards project: Determining natural resource impacts of African horticultural exports "The climate impact of air-freighted fresh fruit and vegetable imports", by Zoe Wangler, consultant to IIED, July 2006
  • Virtual or embedded water content, by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)
    Download 180Kb pdf
  • ‘Ecological space’ and the fairer food miles debate, presentation by IIED
    Download 209Kb pdf
  • Sub-Saharan African horticultural exports to the UK and climate change: a literature review, by Zoe Wangler, consultant to IIED and DfID, September 2006
    Download 415Kb pdf
  • Determining natural resource impacts of African horticultural exports - DFID/IIED/NRI project: ‘Supermarkets, smallholders and standards’ project
    Download 83Kb pdf
  • DfID/IIED/NRI -Small-Scale Producers and Standards in Agrifood Supply Chains - 'Mapping produce from Africa to the UK'
    Download 170Kb pdf

Airfreight and organic standards

In summer 2007, Sustain contributed to discussions with the Soil Association certification department, on the issue of airfreight of organic food. A proposal to ban airfreight had been issued for public consultation by the Soil Association, and a stakeholder meeting was held in July, which Sustain attended. Convinced by arguments that airfreight can play a role in economic development for poor countries, and that airfreight is only one of many significant sources of carbon in the food chain, the Soil Association board decided not to ban airfreight in Soil Association certification standards. They made a commitment to continue to work with food producers to minimise the environmental impact of their farming, storage, processing, packaging and transport.

Supermarkets, seasonality and airfreight

In 2007, Sustain's Deputy Coordinator Kath Dalmeny give presentations at and attended a wide range of high level meetings on this issue, including with the Food Ethics Council, on what key messages civil society should send to supermarkets about tackling airfreight of food. The report by the Food Ethics Council has now been published (download report), with recommendations for how supermarkets could address sustainable development for poor countries, whilst also starting to curb the damage caused by airfreight, and slow the growth in this burgeoning method of food distribution.

Over the period 2004 to 2009, Sustain and the Food Commission also worked with the National Consumer Council to develop and conduct seven national supermarket surveys, and to develop policy recommendations, on how well the major supermarkets help their customers to buy healthier and more sustainable food. This included measures on local and seasonal food, as well as consideration of carbon-intense forms of production and distribution, such as airfreight.

National Consumer Council 'rating retailers' surveys on food sustainability

Original research that informed the supermarket sustainability reports

  • 2005: Greening supermarkets: Do supermarkets help consumers buy sustainable food? [more information]
  • 2007: How can food labelling contribute to a healthy and sustainable food system? [more information]

Other useful links on supermarkets and sustainable food include:

  • An ambitious project called Race to the Top, sponsored by Defra, to provide an assessment of supermarket performance against independently audited sustainability indicators. Race to the Top ended prematurely in 2004 when several supermarkets pulled out (download 320kb PDF final report).
  • The recent Competition Commission enquiry into trading practices within the supermarket sector;
  • The Sustainable Development Commission's 2008 review of supermarket ethics and sustainability, with the report Green, Healthy and Fair.
  • Many of Sustain’s members have a range of concerns about supermarkets. See Tescopoly for more details.





email list


Climate change

Sustain has taken a keen interest in the rapidly accumulating evidence about the effect of food and farming on climate change, as scientific evidence emerges that our food system is a very significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Our food and climate change pages record our activities on this critical issue.

Find out more

The Green House
244-254 Cambridge Heath Road
London E2 9DA

0203 5596 777

Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

© Sustain 2019
Registered charity (no. 1018643)
Site map
Data privacy & cookies