FOR the conscientious, food shopping now poses yet another ethical dilemma: is it really better to buy locally rather than shipping meat, fruit and vegetables around the globe?
A conference of experts yesterday heard that importing food from the other side of the world can actually be more energy-efficient than buying British produce and helps developing countries tackle poverty.
The debate threatens to split the organic movement and could leave ordinary shoppers confused as to what to do for the best. It also comes as the Scottish Conservatives launch a "buy local, eat local" campaign to support farmers and reduce food miles - the distance travelled from suppliers to supermarkets.
Dr Alexander Kasterine, of the International Trade Centre, a United Nations agency, told the conference that the UK should cut its carbon emissions rather than ban imported organic produce.
The event was organised by the Soil Association, which certifies organic products and is considering stripping air-freighted goods of organic status on environmental concerns.
Dr Kasterine told delegates that many UK farms used more energy than those in Kenya as they relied on tractors and other machinery rather than manual labour. About 85 per cent of energy used in product distribution happens once goods are in the UK, he said.
He said UK farmers received subsidies from the European Union. "You can't take that money and then punish African farmers who don't have any subsidies," he said.
"Farmers get a diesel subsidy. They get a direct-energy subsidy of 50p per litre. And yet the same farmers are telling Africans not to air-freight their products.; it is totally absurd."
Dr Kasterine said UK consumers produced around 30 times more emissions than those in East Africa.
"My point is that we should think about changing our rich lifestyles and how really we should be thinking about decreasing carbon dioxide before cutting the route for the very poorest to get out of poverty," he said.
"There is a huge opportunity here for the Soil Association to show that the organic movement is ethical and it is inclusive and it is bringing people out of poverty in these countries."
Anna Bradley, the Soil Association standards board chair, said the group had received about 50 responses to its consultation. The "vast majority" of these wanted some action taken about air freight.
Suggested solutions ranged from stripping goods transported by air of organic status to marking them with an air-freight label. The Soil Association will make a final decision on its approach to air freight and organic produce next year.
Among the importers opposing any changes is Blue Skies in Northamptonshire, which buys fresh pineapple, mango and coconuts from Ghana, where it employs 1,500 people. "We would see any change to the rules as unfair to us and unfair to Africa," said the firm's founder, Anthony Pile. "The carbon emissions for air-freighted food is something like 1 per cent of the total emissions. Why hit farmers who have a tiny carbon footprint and often live without electricity?"
Although the UK organic movement has boomed to become a 1.6 billion-a-year business, farmers have struggled to grow enough food. In 2005, supermarkets imported one-third of their organic range, mostly by air.
Supermarkets are struggling to find enough organic milk due to the number of dairy farmers going out of business and the time taken to convert to new methods. Much organic milk is bought from the Netherlands.
John Scott MSP, the Tory rural affairs spokesman, will today attend a barbecue at a buffalo farm in Fife at the launch of the party's campaign to persuade shoppers to support local jobs and businesses by choosing Scottish produce at the supermarket.
It follows a similar campaign by the National Farmers' Union Scotland, called "What's On Your Plate?", which highlights the benefits to Scotland's farming community of choosing seasonal, Scottish produce.
WHY IT CAN BE GREENER TO IMPORT THAN TO GROW OUR OWN
A STUDY by Lincoln University in New Zealand found that 2,849kg of is produced for every tonne of lamb raised in Britain, while just 688kg is released with imported New Zealand lamb, even after it has travelled the 11,000 miles to Britain.
Researchers and farmers in Britain have raised doubts over the accuracy of the figures, but they have conceded that sheep farming in New Zealand is more efficient than in this country.
Other studies have shown that British apples are better for the environment during autumn and winter, but in spring and summer it is "greener" to import them because of the energy costs used in storing out-of-season produce until it is ready for sale.
For example, in winter, lettuce sourced from the UK produces 3,720kg of per tonne, while importing the same amount from Spain produces 3,560kg - even after shipping is taken into account.
When out of season in the UK, sourcing apples here leads to the production of 217kg of per tonne, compared with only 185kg per tonne for apples imported from New Zealand.
Dr Adrian Williams, an agriculture expert from Cranfield University in Bedfordshire, found that growing roses in Kenya produced only 17 per cent of the generated from growing them in Holland - 6,000kg per 12,000 stems in Kenya versus 35,000kg per 12,000 stems in the Netherlands.
Importing beans by air from Uganda or Kenya was also more efficient, he found.