Pouring palm oil on troubled waters – an update

On Tuesday Caroline Spelman delivered her speech to the Global Business of Biodiversity Symposium. It was entitled ‘Biodiversity and the bottom line’. Her article in The Guardian sort of implied that she would be speaking about palm oil; that ‘miracle product’, remember? Well, she did mention it – eight times actually – but it was lost in a speech that was essentially based on understanding the economics of biodiversity and associated emerging business opportunities. I guess that was to be expected. Her speech was a carefully crafted vehicle that touched all sides but didn’t really say anything. A pity, that; I like to see ‘keynote speeches’ be just that.

She opened with an admission of failure by stating that This is the year our current global target to significantly reduce the loss of our biodiversity expires. It’s the year we finally know that – despite our efforts – this target will not be met.’ And, whilst that is not her fault, nothing in her speech suggested that she brings a wind of change with her appointment. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The good news was that the symposium was attended by representatives of a gamut of organisations that could, if given the chance, make real changes to the way we produce palm oil and manage the consequences. But to do that you need political will and you need to be empowered. This well-meaning symposium was short on the former and, by placing emphasis on business opportunity rather than environmental management, effectively emasculated the latter.

One of the points she made at length and which has nothing at all to do with palm oil is that the UK is the first country in the world ‘to be carrying out a national assessment of our ecosystems’. This is an initiative from 2005 that seeks, according to its website, to ‘help people to make better decisions that impact on the UK’s ecosystems to ensure the long-term sustainable delivery of ecosystem services for the benefit of current and future populations in the UK’. One presumes the contributors to the National Ecosystems Assessment [UKNEA] to be sincere and of course the initiative has to be seen in optimistic terms. But there has been an agenda, meetings and events since 2009 and they will not report until 2011 at the earliest. So it’s going to take six years to get to a point where a report exists. And then? Given that the wheels of government bureaucracy grind very slowly and that palm oil production is projected to have doubled in the twenty years to 2020 I think ‘mapping of the country’s consumption’, which is the initiative she is about to announce, is probably too little, too late. But then, we don’t want to lose the cheap resource while we’re self-righteously debating the loss of biodiversity on the other side of the world, do we? She went on, ‘Working with businesses, we aim to map the palm oil supply chain to the UK, including public procurement, to find out where we are using sustainable palm oil, what we are using it for and how we are sourcing it. Working with companies and NGOs, we aim to use our findings to produce a plan to help shift Britain’s sourcing of palm oil to a sustainable footing’. No programme, no targets and no action; except that every one of those aspirations represented a business opportunity in consulting, reporting, monitoring or production. And if you are in the lobbying game, opportunities to work for both the producers and the conservationists. No, plenty of time before anything gets done and, because they are already on the ladder before the conservationists get a foot on the bottom rung, plenty of opportunities to ensure that the guys in the production chain remain firmly in control.

Ms Spelman was not disingenuous in her speech and clearly believes that commercial opportunity supersedes firm conservationist principle. So we at least know where we stand. She concluded like this;

‘So I will leave you with two thoughts.  Firstly, it is imperative for each business to examine its own supply, to ensure that every step of the way it is guaranteed sustainable, otherwise your supply chain will be at risk.

Secondly, the world is going to start pricing natural resources, so if you move into these markets early you will get the first mover advantages that those moving into the carbon market are seeing.

So you have a Government not just concerned for the environment, but your bottom line as well’.

As I write this David Cameron is in USA having just discussed the fallout from the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and protests have taken place in Alaska against the commencement of deep-sea drilling. I suspect that in both those cases senior officials gave smiling and heart-felt assurances that the then current government was just as concerned for the environment as it was for their bottom lines.

We never learn, do we?


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