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.

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