Science in Society Archive

Transparent Label An Alternative to Organic Certification

Organic food flown in from poor African countries to the UK has triggered debate over organic certification; the solution may be a transparent voluntary label that directly informs consumers. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Is airfreight organic food really organic?

The organic market grew by 25 percent in the UK to £1.97 bn in the year 2006-2007, but more than 30 percent of organic products is imported, some even flown in from sub-Saharan Africa [1]. Does that make sense in the cost in CO2 emissions? Especially when so many hungry people there are too poor to buy the food grown in their own countries?

After months of consultation on the issue, the Soil Association, which certifies 70 percent of organic food in the UK, published its recommendations based on more than 200 written submissions.  The details of the proposal will be up for further consultation in 2008, and new certification rules are expected to come into effect January 2009.

The impact on the organic market may be relatively small, as less than one percent of organic imports enter the UK by air. But 80 percent of airfreight organics comes from low or lower-middle income countries.

The Soil Association is proposing [2] that any airfreight products should meet its own ethical trading standards or the Fairtrade Foundation’s standards by 2011. It wants businesses dependent on airfreight organic products to develop initiatives to reduce airfreight, and is encouraging people and businesses to be less reliant on fossil fuels for their livelihood.

The proposal to have ethical trade standards mandatory in its organic certification is new, as they are now voluntary. The standards entail “fair and ethical tradition relationships”, “socially responsible practices” and “fair and ethical employment” throughout the entire organic food chain, from producer to retailer and in both developing and developed countries.

The association is also looking into reliably and fairly assessing the full carbon footprint of organic products, and wants “all organic products to have a minimal or even mitigating contribution to climate change.” It is reviewing standards for heated glasshouse production and actively encouraging people to eat less meat.

The Soil Association’s discussion document set out other options for reducing carbon emissions including the possibility of labelling organic food products with the number of air miles they have travelled, or a programme whereby the carbon produced by airfreight is offset.

Mixed reactions

Oxfam welcomed the emphasis of the new proposals on fair trade standard, but warned that change in policy should be phased in over a suitable period to minimize negative impacts on the most vulnerable producers and to provide support for them [3]. Oxfam spokesperson Duncan Green pointed out that if everyone in the UK replaced one 100 W light bulb with a low energy equivalent, it would reduce UK’s CO2 emissions by five times the amount that would result from not buying airfreight fresh fruit and vegetables from sub-Saharan Africa. “It is essential that our responses to climate change should not harm the people who are least responsible for the environmental damage in the first place.”

The International Trade Centre (ITC) is altogether unconvinced. It says that organic exporters now face new costs to enter the UK, and poor African farmers will therefore find it harder to enter the markets. Moreover, the ITC claimed that most of the food grown in the UK and continental Europe produce more greenhouse gases than organic exports air-freighted by poor African farmers [1]. ITC trade and development expert Alexander Kasterine said, “Food transport has nothing to do with working conditions of farm workers, and only a small proportion of these exporters are currently using fair trade or ethical trade standards.”

Cost of organic certification prohibitive

UK ’s Minister for Trade and Development Gareth Thomas said he was “disappointed” with the Soil Association proposal to withdraw certification from airfreight products that are not additionally certified to ethical trade standards [4]. He was worried about the costs of additional certification, pointing out that, “certifying new products can take from six months to several years and costs between tens and hundreds of thousands of Euros.”

He also said that airfreight ban “does little to solve climate change”, as less than one tenth of one percent of UK greenhouse gas emission come from airfreight fruit and vegetables from Africa; and driving six and a half miles to buy from a shop emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK. “There can be no denying that food transport has an environmental and social cost, but most of this (about 85%) comes from UK roads,” he said.

The UK government is encouraging more efficient distribution within the food and drink sector, and proposed that the food industry trade bodies look into achieving a 20 percent reduction in the social costs of transporting food in the UK by 2012.

The food and drink manufacturing, food retail and catering sectors are currently responsible for approximately 4 percent of UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions of   about 26Mt CO2e (CO2 equivalent) per year [5]. The food chain as a whole from farm to plate, which includes transport and distribution, domestic energy use from storage and cooking, is around 111 Mt, or approx 17 percent of UK’s emissions.

The Food Industry Sustainability Strategy (FISS) published in April 2006 [5], is considering a 3.5 percent reduction a year over 5 years from a 2006 baseline, by improving the efficiency of product manufacturing, and by reduce waste.

Global trade and poverty

But it is trade that’s uppermost in the mind of the Minister of Trade and Development. British shoppers spend over £1 million a day on imported fruit and vegetables from Africa; and in addition to the very small minority of organic farmers, almost a million conventional farmers and their families depend on airfreight fruit and vegetables from Africa to the UK.

“Trade is fundamental to development.” He said [6], “To beat world poverty, it is essential that economic growth is encouraged in the world’s poorest countries. They must be able to trade on the global market, exporting their goods freely and getting a fair price for them.” Unfortunately, it is precisely a fair price that the poor farmers everywhere cannot get without mandatory ethical trade standards.

It is precisely this misplaced emphasis on export trade in the aftermath of the Green Revolution that has resulted in poverty and hunger [7] (see Beware the New “Doubly Green” Revolution, SiS 37).

India, the home of the Green Revolution in Asia, is a major food exporter, and its 26 m ton grain surplus in 2006 could feed the 320 million of it population that go to bed hungry. But the starving villagers are too poor to buy the food produced at their doorstep. India is also caught in a worsening epidemic of farmers’ suicide largely as the result of subsidized dumping in the global ‘free-trade’ market. Debt-ridden farmers are caught in a downward spiral of rising costs of fertilizers and pesticides and diminishing income due to plummeting commodity prices, falling yields from unsustainable cultivation practices and recently, massive crop failures for those who have been deceived into planting GM crops. An estimated 100 000 farmers have taken their own lives between 1993 and 2003 and the introduction GM crops has escalated the suicides to 16 000 a year.

Only organic agriculture of the right kind can feed the world

Organic agriculture can feed the world [8] (see Scientists Find Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World and More, SiS 35). But it is becoming especially clear that only the right kind of organic agriculture can feed the world, an organic agriculture that supports local production and local consumption, and protects the livelihood of farmers [7].

There is indeed growing concern over ethical trade standards and carbon footprint in organic certification. Consumers are buying into fair trade products from Third World countries, but they generally also prefer locally produced fresh fruits and vegetables, not only because that cuts down on carbon emissions and helps mitigate climate change, but also because it supports local farmers whose farms they can visit at any time.

Conscientious consumers are demanding more information about the food they eat, especially as different certification schemes are not all the same. 

The Pianesi food label

Mario Pianesi, founder of the highly influential macrobiotic association in Italy, Un Punto Macrobiotico (UPM) (see Box), has initiated just the kind of transparent, comprehensive label that gives all the information the most discerning organic consumer might want.

Pianesi’s label has information on the entire food chain from farm to shop shelf. It tells you the location of the farm that grows the food, the area and amount harvested, the year of the harvest, the number of people employed, and the specifics of the farming method, such as the origin of the seed, how the sowing is done, what kind of organic fertilizer used (if any), energy used, whether irrigated and amount of water used, weed control, and details of processing (if any) (see photo).

The transparent food label containing everything that the organic consumer would want to know as an alternative to organic certification

The label is already in use, and on natural non-food products as well, though not all information is available or mandatory. The advantage is that it is not a certification scheme, and hence has no certification cost attached. But the producer of the item can be taken to court if something printed on the label turns out not to be true. Consumers buy it because they have confidence in the brand and approve of the labelling scheme. This scheme is therefore most likely to work in the local community or region, and that’s good enough for consumers and farmers who support the ideal organic food system.

Mario is trying to get this label accepted by the Italian Senate, where the majority of the representatives are in favour. But he has yet to convince most of the Italian producers.

Mario Pianesi and Un Punto Macrobiotico

Mario Pianesi founded the association Un Punto Macrobiotico (UPM) in 1980. With his mother from Montenegro and his father from the Marche region, Pianesi appreciated the positive sides of the Mediterranean cuisine.

At the age of 26, he took evening courses in nutrition. When he read the book, Zen Macrobiotics by Georges Ohsawa, he learned about the ancient Chinese theories of Yin and Yang and the five Transformations. He spent the next 10 years studying these ideas, trying to confirm the application of the theories to various branches of science, and then promoted them within the UPM centres. After that, he began to organize public conferences that have continued uninterrupted to the present day. He has given different courses for doctors, teaching diagnosis and nutrition according to the two ancient Chinese theories, and he was among the first to become acquainted with iridology, the diagnosis of illnesses from the appearance of the iris.

In seeking to unite traditional Chinese and modern science, as president of UPM, he organized a series of conferences on different themes, starting with “Macrobiotics and Science” in 1995, “Culture” in 2000, “From Ancient Chinese Theory to the Sustainable Pianesian Development” in 2002,  “Rice: Fundamental Food for Human Health” in 2004, and “Environment, Agriculture, Nutrition, Health, Economy” in 2006 to coincide with the World Food Day. All these conferences still take place annually.

In 2001, UPM organized its first initiative at the Senate of the Italian Republic, presenting the transparent label designed by Pianesi, and approved so far by 88 senators.

In the same year the Association launched the “Ma-Pi Diabetes Project” in Asia, South America and North Africa, through which the effectiveness of Ma-Pi macrobiotic diets has been proven on patients affected with diabetes.

The first documented scientific results of this project were obtained in Cuba [9].  Today, the “Ma-Pi Diebetes Project” has expanded to other countries.

For his work in the service of the environment, agriculture and health, Pianesi has received recognition from various local, provincial and regional groups, and from the Society of Natural Science in Tunisia . In 2006 he received the award as “Best work in diet therapy” from the Medical Diet congress in Dijan, China ; and in 2007, he was given the degree “Honoris Causa” from the Academy of Science in Mongolia . In 2005 he was asked to serve on the UNESCO Scientific Committee for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

Through the development and growth of UPM, the Marche region in Italy came to have the highest concentration of macrobiotic centres in the world, with stores, restaurants, food laboratories, factories producing natural clothing, natural footwear, natural furnishings, natural paint and construction products.

In UPM stores and restaurants, foods products are sold that adhere to strict standards and bear the label designed by Pianesi, which is also now being used on non-food products.

Pianesi directly stimulated the founding of the first organic farming cooperative in Italy in 1975, and in 1980, began to recover seeds of plants that have been abandoned in favour of hybrid seeds or GMOs. Since then, he has continued his research towards natural agriculture, proposing an original agricultural model of “policoltura pianesiana” (Pianesian polyculture).

Starting with seeds reproduced in the fields, obtained directly from farmers, the plants are allowed to revert as much as possible to their wild state, cereals, beans and vegetables are grown in the middle of fruit or other trees spaced at about 5 to 6 metres, in combination with hedges to produce a natural, balanced environment.

With this polyculture system, farmers have reported an increase in production and a significant reduction in costs, in addition to substantial positive effects on land previously turned alkaline from monoculture and intensive treatment with chemicals, achieving a pH reduction from 6.5  to 5.5 in just a few years. From the UPM Secretariat

Article first published 29/11/07


  1. “Organic not organic if it’s air-freighted, says Soil Association”, Jess Halliday, Food&Drink, 25 October 2007,
  2. “The Soil Association Standards Board recommendations following the air freight consultation”, The Soil Association, October 2007,
  3. “Oxfam welcomes Soil Association announcement on organic certification”, Oxfam, 25 October 2007,
  4. “Gareth Thomas responds to Soil Association decision on air-freighted products”, DFID News, 26 October 2007,
  5. Final Submission of the Food Industry Sustainability Strategy Champions’ Group on Energy and Climate Change, May 2007, DEFRA,
  6. “Balancing the cost of food air miles: Listening to trade and environmental concerns”, DFID News, 17 September 2007,
  7. Ho MW. Beware the new “doubly green” revolution. Science in Society 37.
  8. Ho MW.Scientists find organic agriculture can feed the world. Science in Society 36.
  9. Porrata-Maury C, Abuin-Landin A, Morales-Zayas A, Vilá-Dacosta-Calheiros R, Hernández-Triana M, Menéndez-Hernández J, Diaz-Sanchez ME, Mirabal-Sosa, Campa-Huergo C, Pianesi M. Efecto terapéutico de la dieta macrobiotica Ma-Pi en 25 adultos con diabetes mellitus tipo 2. Rev Cubana Invest Biomed 1007, 26(2).

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