For all the environmental problems we still face, it is extraordinary to consider how far we’ve come. Forty years ago governments had no real interest in the environment and companies basically treated the planet as a pinata of resources to be exploited.
As the environmental movement grew, and as green political parties started to attract the attention of voters – most notably in Germany – the mainstream political parties realised that in order to stop bleeding votes to these green parties, they had to factor green initiatives into their own manifestos. Even Margaret Thatcher (Thatcher!) made a speech in which she said her governemnt “espouses the concept of sustainable economic development”.
As a result legislation was passed stopping the manufacture of CFCs, the creation of Green Belts and fishing quotas, Clean Air Act amendments and bans on ocean dumping among many others. This flurry of activity appears to have ground to a halt at Copenhagen, but public awareness was raised and it is a rare day when national newspapers don’t have at least one headline with the word ‘green’ in it.
The problem is that there is a limit to how green we can be. When newspapers talk about the survival of our species, it’s in terms of clean air and water, and enough forest to supply us with oxygen. But there is something else we need to survive: food. And food cannot be sustainable.
In fact, no natural commodity is sustainable, not one. If you are going to use any natural resource in your product line it will have to be dug up or chopped down, transported, crushed, mixed or melted, transported again and packaged in order to be sold to the consumer. Even an organic carrot has to be driven from the farm to the chopping board.
With seven billion people preparing (if they’re lucky) three meals a day, the best we can do, the absolute best, is minimise the damage our need for calories does to the planet.
Many environmental organisations understand this and work with industries in order to minimise as far as possible those activities which cannot be iradicated. Other campaigners take more hardline positions and will criticise whatever activity they see as detrimental, and there will always be these criticisms because, at the end of the day, every activity is detrimental in some way. No matter how far the human race goes in reducing its footprint, it can always be attacked for not doing enough.
When a developing nation complains that the West had its industrial revolution and now it’s their turn, many environmentalists reply that without an environment there will be no industry. This is true, but it’s not particularly constructive.
Palm oil is a particularly interesting product in this sense. Because of its ability to deliver a far higher yield from far less land than any other vegetable oil, campaigners are beginning to acknowledge that there is no better crop to feed our growing population (estimated by the UN to reach 9 billion by 2050) with the minimum possible risk to the environment. As Thomas Mielke put it: “A world without palm oil would be a terrible place. We cannot, we cannot, replace palm oil.” (The EU labelling legislation introduced in December may – ironically - be the most damaging piece of environmental legislation that we have seen for decades – See Topic: Why Sustainable Palm Oil Is So Important).
The long-tail of the legislation created in the 80s and 90s is a deeply-ingrained perception among the public that the environment is under threat, and any politician with his or her head screwed on will know that a photo op of them hugging a baby orangutan will be roundly cheered and will do wonders for their political profiles. The far more effective alternative: telling the public to stop using their beloved cars, for example, would be political suicide.
As the anti-palm oil hashtags trend higher, and as people share the latest headlines on their friends’ Facebook profiles, companies too can easily deflect an attack on their brands simply by announcing a switch to rapeseed, or soy, or coconut oil - none of which suffer from a public perception that they are ‘bad’. In doing however, they will be creating a greater demand for crops which require more land, and therefore lead to more, not less, deforestation.
There are still serious problems with the way some palm oil is produced, but the amount of palm oil which is certified sustainable is growing year by year.
Attacking palm oil generally and as a result forcing companies to ditch it and start using another, far more environmentally-damaging crop, is akin to ditching beef burgers because of the deforestation required for grazing land, and making elephant burgers instead.