Banning air freighting of organic fruit and veg would seriously compromise the livelihoods of farmers in the developing world, says a new report from the ITC.
The Soil Association, which is responsible for certification of 70 per cent of the UK's organic produce, has been considering the measure as one of several options to reduce carbon emissions caused by organic produce being flow into the UK - a rather embarrassing side effect of the organic cause, which is largely driven by green interests.
The warning from the International Trade Centre comes a week before the association is due to say whether it will recommend a ban on air freighted fruit and vegetable being labelled as organic, after discussing with registered organic producers in the UK and overseas, supermarkets and other stakeholders about proposals contained in a consultation document.
Researchers from the centre, which is a joint technical cooperation agency between the UN and the WTO, found that 21,500 people in the developing world would lose out on their share of the market if the ban were to be enforced.
"A ban could have profound economic impacts on local communities in some of the world's poorest countries," said expert Alexander Kasterine, who commissioned the study from the Danish Institute of International Studies.
The ITC called organic production "an African success story". The biggest exporters of organic fruit and veg to the UK are said to be Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and Morocco. Seventy-nine per cent of organic produce from overseas is said to hail from poor countries.
"Air freighting is part of this and has allowed African businesses to export fresh produce and to add value to products through cutting, mixing and packaging," said the ITC.
Annual retail sales of organic goods in the UK are valued at around £42m (€60.58m). Airfreight imports are said to account for some 3.1 per cent of all organic fresh fruit sales (mainly organic fruits), 13.9 per cent of organic fresh vegetables, and 8.1 per cent of the whole organic fresh produce category.
However the ITC sees the issue as being a conflict between organics from overseas and the perception that locally sourced food is better for the environment. The UK has seen a tremendous increase in the number of farmers markets in the last few years, for instance.
What is more, it says that African farmers themselves have a carbon footprint that is less than 3 per cent that of the average British consumer.
Other alternatives to curbing air freighting presented in the consultation document were the labelling of produce to indicate the distance it has travelled (a measure that has entered into modern parlance as 'food miles') and carbon offsetting.
However there have also been fears that the organic market simply will not be able to keep up with demand, if organic air-freighting to the UK were to come to an end.
In May, Organic Monitor analyst Amarjit Sahota told FoodNavigator.com that shortage of organic produce could curb development of the market in general, especially given the growing demand.
This point was reinforced by the ITC report, which said that air freighting helps extend the season of perishable produce or make them available all year round.
Demand for veg like green beans, mangetout, snap peas, baby corn, leaf salads, broccoli, asparagus and celery cannot be met without importing, it said.
Organic Monitor estimates that the overall UK organic food & drink market grew by an impressive 25 per cent last year to be worth £1.97bn (c €2.9bn).