Thu, Jul 19, 2007 - Page 9 News List

British organic `food miles' debate arouses Kenyan farmers' fury

By Aidan Hartley  /  THE OBSERVER , KIAMBU, KENYA

In floppy hats and gumboots, Kenya's Kikuyu farmers are preparing for war with Britain. There isn't an AK-47 in sight, though there are plenty of organic cucumbers, carrots, French beans and cauliflowers.

It's a battle over who is to blame for climate change -- poor African farmers who export their produce by air, or Western consumers who care about the environmental impact of "food miles."

"Who emits more greenhouse gases?" asks Charles Kimani among his avocado trees. "A Kenyan or a Briton?"

The average Briton emits 30 times more carbon than a Kenyan, according to World Bank figures -- or 9.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide compared with 0.3 tonnes.

Behind the furore is the proposal by the UK's Soil Association (SA), which campaigns for organic food, organic farming and sustainable forestry to ban imports of organic produce from poor countries like Kenya because of their "food miles" -- the carbon emitted by air transport.

The SA will hear views on the issue until September, when it may decide to introduce a limited or total ban.

A ban would mean labeling air-freighted products so that they effectively lost their organic status due to their food miles.

Such a move would destroy the livelihoods of tens of thousands of smallholders across Africa in one of the continent's most enterprising export industries, forcing them back into poverty and subsistence farming.

"A ban on our export market will be death for us," says Kimani, who has put his children through school and college from the profits made from his fruit and vegetables on just three hectares of land.

Organic produce is the fastest growth area of Africa's horticultural industry, together with cut flowers and other high-value products like dried herbs and essential oils. In Kenya, where two-thirds of people live on less than US$1 a day, horticulture is the largest export after tourism. The story is much the same in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania.

A chain of other industries from packaging to transport firms also rely on horticulture, so the knock-on effect would hurt millions of jobs across the region.

The food miles debate deepens the scepticism that many Africans already have towards Western rhetoric about ending poverty in the continent. Most farmers in upcountry Kenyan areas such as Kiambu do not look to increased aid as the way out of poverty. Devout Christians with a tradition of hard work and self-help, Kikuyu farmers see wealth coming from access to lucrative Western markets.

"The SA proposal is just another non-tariff barrier to trade among the many that already exist," says Eustace Kiarii, chief of an organization representing Kenyan organic farmers.

"Over the years we have developed an enterprising culture that should not be undermined. Farmers from Kenya and developing countries are not asking for special trade access, but to be allowed to trade competitively," he said.

Kenyan organic farmers receive not a cent in subsidies, whereas EU farmers enjoyed some 50 billion euros in aid last year.

Kenyans also point out that the SA proposals -- backed by UK farmers and environmentalists -- are not yet based on accurate scientific data.

A taskforce in Nairobi has commissioned a study hoping to prove the food miles lobby wrong by looking at African farming in comparison to European organic agriculture.

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