Sunday, 23 November 2014

Is there such a thing as 'good' palm oil?

What connects orangutans, climate change and the tasty chocolate spread I sometimes have on my breakfast toast?
The answer to that, some readers are no doubt thinking, is obvious. And some are thinking, “not that again”. But bear with me, because this leads to more questions than answers, not always as predictable as you might imagine.
The straightforward answer to the first question is: palm oil.
At which some will nod knowingly. While others may be only dimly aware that palm oil is almost unavoidable by anyone who uses soap, washes their clothes, or eats anything they haven’t prepared themselves from basic ingredients.
A quick check of my cupboards reveals it in shampoo, shower gel, breakfast cereal, biscuits and oatcakes. And that’s in a household that has been trying for years to avoid the stuff.
From next year, it will have to be specifically named among the ingredients of any food that contains it. For now it may be hidden under the comforting term “vegetable oil”.
You may have it in margarine, cooking oil, almost anything baked or fried, chocolate, crisps, toothpaste, chewing-gum, shaving cream, even “healthy” fruit and nut snacks. Even, if you’ve fallen for that least green of all supposedly green ideas “bio-fuel”, in your petrol tank.
Grown all round the tropics, but especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, palm oil is now one of the world’s most widely traded commodities.
And for two very basic reasons – it’s cheap to grow, and it has a longer shelf-life than other edible oils or fats.
The medical research jury is still out on whether eating it is bad for you. Some studies have linked it with high cholesterol and heart disease.
What’s not in doubt is that it’s very bad indeed for the environment.
Which is where climate change and orangutans come in.
According to Greenpeace, palm oil is the largest driver of deforestation in Indonesia. Its growth is tied to some of the south-east Asia’s worst environmental crimes, and the threat is spreading in Africa and South America.
Rainforests are being destroyed at an ever-increasing rate for massive palm plantations. Impoverished workers, including children, are trapped in virtual slavery to cultivate the stuff.
Viewers of Bruce Parry’s excellent Tribe series will recall, too, the way indigenous people in Borneo are being driven off their land by forest clearances for the creation of palm oil plantations.
The tribal people – like the orangutans, rare tigers and other endangered species – are being driven towards extinction by the clearances.
Meanwhile the destruction of the forest pollutes the Earth’s atmosphere with gigatons of greenhouse gases.
At this point a weasel word creeps in. Sustainability.
You may see it used by the big oil-producers to justify the source of their product. But it’s a greenwash.
A palm farm may be sustainable now, in the sense that it can continue to produce. But if it has been created in a place that used to be virgin forest, the loss of habitat, diversity and carbon-absorption is permanent.
And, as the prevalence of palm oil in our homes testifies, we are all accomplices.
So what can we do?
You might expect Greenpeace, of all organisations, to recommend a zero-tolerance policy. But not so.
An article on the environmental campaign group’s website takes a surprising approach.
Forests specialist Dr Amy Moas says: “The answer is not to boycott a commodity that is crucial to Indonesia, and practically unavoidable in the products we consume.
“All consumer companies, traders and palm oil producers need to implement a No Deforestation policy to ensure that the palm oil in their supply chains is free from forest destruction, land conflict and human rights violations.”
She insists that “good palm oil exists”, grown responsibly on land that has not been hacked and burned out of the rainforest.
And that rather than trying to avoid palm oil entirely, we should be encouraging the good stuff. By, for example, eating Nutella.
Being 70 per cent sugar and oil, the hazelnut chocolate spread can hardly be classed as a health food. Still, I was delighted in France this summer to find Casino – a co-operative association of small shops, a bit like Spar here – marketing its own version. Not just palm-oil-free, but proclaiming the fact in large letters on its label.
Proof that French consumers are well ahead of us in making it an issue.
Which may help explain the decision of Ferrero, makers of Nutella, to announce their commitment to rainforest-friendly oil.
So, personal health concerns aside, can we go back to chocolatey breakfasts, then?
Well, maybe.
Some question the environmental credentials of any crop that’s predominantly grown where rainforest used to grow.
As one sceptic comments on the Greenpeace page: “The demand will be too high to rely on small organic palm-oil farms.” Which seems a fair point.
The same writer also says: “You can produce Nutella based on sunflower oil, but the profit would be less.
“I would rather encourage the companies to use other oils that don’t need to grow on rainforest grounds.”
It’s a tricky business, this attempt to be an ethical consumer. I know some people who think it’s a contradiction in terms anyway.
Pass the marmalade, please.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Cathedral to Mammon in a city of bling

Before we set off last week for a few days in Barcelona, my friend’s young son had a simple request. “Can you get me Messi’s autograph?” he asked.
Simple to ask, not so simple to fulfil.
The world’s finest footballer doesn’t tend to mix with the tourists in the Rambla.
Except in the sense that his name and number appear on the shirt-backs of countless hordes, both of the sightseeing visitors and the home fans.
Small boys, fat middle-aged blokes, teenage twin Japanese girls - they all bear the name of Lionel Messi on their purple-and-blue striped tops. Which must make it a very strange experience for the man himself if indeed he ever does take a stroll through the city centre.
He’s there, too, on a myriad posters on street corners and in the Metro advertising the next home game at the Nou Camp. In English.
Presumably the mighty Barca feel no need to advertise their fixtures to their own fans, but are happy to boost their coffers with a bit of tourist cash.
Football is a religion in Spain - and nowhere more so than in Barcelona, where the Nou Camp is its grandiose temple.
But there’s another, bigger, religion. A worldwide worship. The prevailing ritual and belief system of the 21st century. The driving force and obsession, it seems, of nearly every society on the planet.
I refer, of course, to the worship of Mammon.
It’s related, inevitably, to football. Money now talks a lot louder than trophies and medals.
But then the religion of Mammon gets into practically everything these says. Such as, for instance... religion.
As we exited the Sagrada Familia Metro station right outside the world-famous cathedral of that name (otherwise known as the “Gaudi cathedral”, after its architect), I marvelled at the length of the coralled queue. Waiting, not to get in - they’d have to queue again for that - but to buy tickets for later admission. And if you want to go up one of the towers, that’ll be a case of buy now, come back tomorrow.
Simple entrance to the still-unfinished cathedral will set you back about £15 each. Add another fiver for the tower. Or potentially rather more – up to about £25 total – if you get suckered into one of the “deals” or “offers” from various websites. We managed to pay online at the official price before we’d reached the front of the ticket-office queue.
As we edged forward beneath Gaudi’s statue-encrusted, dripping-stone facade, I experienced a deep fellow-feeling with Christ.
Not, it may be said, for anything like the first time. And not because I espouse Christianity, or any other religious faith.
I’ve always thought the real Jesus - so far as we can be sure there ever was such a person, or exactly what he stood for - has been badly served by Christianity.
In all the stories, the one where his humanity comes through most clearly is when he overturns the money-changers’ tables.
As told in John 2, after throwing the tradesmen out of the temple, he tells them: "Take these things hence! Make not My Father’s house a house of merchandise!”
What he would make of the Sagrada Familia, or the City of London - or pretty much any city in the world today - is an interesting question.
But let’s be fair here. Once we got inside the cathedral - more than 24 hours after paying for the privilege - I found it a revelation.
I’d been here before, 12 years ago, when my experience of the interior was severely limited by scaffolding, men in hard hats, and tarpaulins blocking almost everything from view. It left me totally unprepared for the glorious space now revealed, the other-worldly elegance of the slender pillars and the roof they support, and the light thrown by the loveliest of modern stained glass in the windows.
Even the queue protocols make sense when you see them as a way of ensuring the cathedral never gets too crowded to appreciate.
The way the architecture combines engineering with artistic invention is uplifting, but not exactly a religious experience. Certainly not for me - not for the hundreds to be seen (like me) at any given moment wielding cameras left and right - and not really, I suspect, for people a lot more religious than I am.
If there’s a touch of bling about it, that’s hardly out of keeping with what the Catholic Church has always been.
And in Barcelona right now it doesn’t have quite that old nasty taste of extravagance amidst poverty.
From its shiny shopfronts to its clean, efficient transport system the city hardly seems mired in the financial despair we hear Spain as a whole is suffering.
Which leads to an uncomfortable thought about Catalonia’s eager desire for independence, as expressed in Sunday’s “unofficial” referendum.

That this might be a case not of an oppressed minority seeking its freedom, but of a rich region wishing to leave its poor neighbours by the wayside. Which is very bling, if not very Christian.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A classical column to rest your laurels on

One of my favourite Star Trek adventures is a Next Generation episode from 1991.
In it, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is stranded on a strange planet with the captain of an alien ship.
Normally, in the Star Trek universe, the most unfamiliar humanoids can communicate perfectly well. Their universal translator seamlessly renders all speech into late 20th-century American English. Very handy.
In this episode, though, Picard and Captain Dathon find they can't understand each other at all.
Frustrating. And puzzling, because they are using a lot of the same words but still can't make sense of what's being said.
A bit like watching a rap video, or being stuck on a bus with a load of Cockneys.
It all starts becoming clearer when Picard realises that the Tamarians speak entirely in metaphors.
Which is not, in fact, all that different from the way we speak. And most people, most of the time, don't even seem to realise they are doing it.
World your oyster (or your lobster)? OK, that may be a red herring... but they're all metaphors. In the case of the herring, a particularly charming one from the old sport of hound-trailing. Yes, really.
The language of sportspeople and commentators is especially rich in the unconscious use of metaphor. Often delightfully mixed.
“They've laid out their stall and parked the bus and we've got to run the channels and feed our man in the hole to try and open them up.”
Total gibberish. Unless you're a football devotee, in which case you understand perfectly what was just said.
Of course, you might think the attacking side would do better to get early ball to their wide men, expose their flanks and get in behind them – but you can still follow the argument. Even if you are tutting at my outdated use of “man in the hole” as if I didn't know that this season he's become a No.10, even if he's actually got a number five, 11 or 37 on his back. And may be the apex of a diamond.
With me so far? OK, how about this?
“Credit Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett for getting to Romo with an array of blitzes. The five sacks are the most allowed by the Cowboys since 2012. Four of those five came via inside linebackers and safeties, evidence of a great game called by Haslett.”
No, me neither. It's so opaque I'm not even sure how many metaphors there are there, let alone what they're supposed to mean. Captain Picard would have no trouble with it, though, I'm sure.
The sport, being described is, of course, the one known metaphorically as “gridiron”. Or, in American parlance, “football” - a rather weak metaphor used to describe a game in which an object only vaguely resembling a ball is passed not from foot to foot but from hand to hand.
Which, quite obviously, is just not cricket. Neither metaphorically nor literally.
Cricket, as everyone from the former British Empire – and no one else – fully understands, is a game in which if you have a short square leg you'll need extra cover, while if blessed with a long fine leg...
But I'm not here to make sense (as if anyone could) of the ins and outs of cricket. What I was setting out to do before I got waylaid by sports talk was to draw your attention to another joyous example of metaphor-mangling.
I'm not even sure who it was on the radio the other day. She was probably a politician – some junior minister perhaps – but I was totally distracted from what she was trying to say by the way she chose to say it.
“We're doing well,” she said. “But this isn't something we can rest our laurels on.”
You what?
It's a bit like the “fine toothcomb” people are forever employing to try to find things. Sometimes it's just a plain toothcomb. Ever seen one of those? What's it look like, and what's it for?
Well, actually, there is such a thing. It's a vaguely comb-shaped tooth in the mouth of a lemur or a tree-shrew – but I don't think anyone (except lemurs and tree-shrews) ever uses one to look for anything. Though you might, metaphorically or otherwise, use a fine-toothed comb.
Then there's the increasingly common assertion that “the proof is in the pudding”. What's that supposed to mean?
But back to those laurels. I assume you would never rest yours on anything. Though you might just rest on your laurels – once you've been awarded them in the form of a wreath or coronet to mark your victory in some sporting or political contest. Or to celebrate being awarded a Nobel Prize.
Personally, I'm not sure laurels are very comfortable to rest on anyway. I shan't rest on mine. I'll be back next week, probably turning again to more serious matters.
But the proof (i.e. the test) of that pudding will be in the eating.