Thursday, 22 August 2013

The spread and spread of palm oil

You can forget the snails and the frogs’ legs, preposterous clichés at best. You can leave the over-rated, over-crusty bread in its bin. And you can set the cheese aside for now – though that’s not at all easy for me to do. If there are two things that should really symbolise French food they are croissants and a particular chocolate spread.
They may not be what you’d expect to find in a fancy restaurant, either side of the Channel, but no breakfast table in a French home or café is properly laid without them.
My teenage daughter doesn’t like either of them, which may be the strangest thing about her. It was her primary source of trepidation when embarking on a recent exchange visit to a French family.
Knowing her fear of croissants, we acquired a jar of Nutella to familiarise her with the flavour before she went. With the result I ended up eating most of the jar myself, rediscovering a taste from my own teen years.
I’m not the total sucker for anything chocolate-flavoured that so many people seem to be, but that dash of hazelnut makes it a lot harder to resist.
As for croissants, I’m not sure how they achieve that distinctive taste and texture – flaky on the outside, stretchy inside – but if you’ve never eaten one in France you won’t know just what I’m talking about. For some reason, anything called croissants served anywhere outside their homeland are simply not the same.
For those of us who care not just about how our food tastes, but where it comes from, there are problems, however.
I was disturbed this week by a revelation from an old friend we stayed with recently in beautiful Burgundy.
“Generally I cook stuff from scratch but I draw the line at croissants,” Cheryl said. “We had a surprise today because we found out there was some palm oil in frozen croissants in our fridge. Looks like I may be making the next croissants myself after all.
“Can I just suggest that you have a look at your processed food and see just what has been put in the stuff you bought.”
Follow that piece of advice and you may find your kitchen cupboards are full of palm oil.
If the ingredients listed on tin or packet include an unspecified “vegetable oil”, chances are it’s palm – if it’s the healthier olive or sunflower oil, it’s likely to say so.
Several companies in France – including supermarket own brands – have taken lately to labelling products proudly as “free of palm oil”. Which tells you how far ahead of us they are in recognising a real issue.
But what’s wrong with palm oil anyway?
According to the World Health Organisation, eating it increases the risk of heart disease. But it’s the effect of it on the health of the planet that really concerns me.
Particularly the rate at which high-yield, industrial-scale plantations are spreading across several parts of the world, notably Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, patches of South America and a large swathe of Africa.
In many places these plantations are taking the place of ancient rainforest, a sterile monoculture displacing what was the most vibrant biodiversity anywhere.
On the grand scale this is bad for the atmosphere, a very likely cause of global warming.
On the local scale, in Borneo and Sumatra, it’s bad for creatures such as the orang-utan, now in danger of extinction.
And if you’ve ever watched Bruce Parry’s excellent series ‘Tribe’ you’ll know how people too are driven off their land by companies chasing the big profits palm oil can bring. Peasant farmers in Colombia, Honduras and Malaysia are among the thousands who have lost their homes and livelihoods.
Earlier this year Nutella, in a bizarre tie-up with WWF (that’s the World Wide Fund for Nature, not the wrestling association), announced that in future all its palm oil would come from “sustainable sources”. So that’s good and green, right?
That word “sustainable” is one of the tricksiest around.
However “sustainable” that oil farm is today, it’s still likely to be on land that was primal forest until yesterday.
It may be capable of sustaining Western food habits, fancy soap products – and our not-as-green-as-they’re-painted “bio-fuels” – but it’s no longer sustaining the plants, people and creatures who used to live there.
And justice for all?

WHEN is a cause “just”? It’s a question worth asking because that’s when the USA says it will use drone strikes – missiles fired from unmanned aircraft.
In late July the Americans resumed a campaign of drone attacks in Yemen, a desperately poor and troubled country you might think had enough problems already.
Last week there were eight drone strikes in different parts of that frightened and confused country. Was every death they caused “just”?
Worldwide, there have been American drone attacks on 27 different sites in the past six months.
Was all the fear spread by the overhead buzzing of the remote-control planes “just”?
If this is how America wages the “war on terror”, it seems legitimate to ask which side are the terrorists.

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