Pouring Palm oil on troubled waters

Oil palm plantation

Caroline Spelman is our secretary of state for the environment and has entertained me today with a gripping piece in the Guardian. She advocates that we reap the benefits of palm oil but manage the environmental costs. As a newspaper article it’s pretty thin but, more worryingly, the rhetoric used hints at taking our highly-lauded coalition down a sad and familiar road. Yep, it is the economy, stupid; but sorting it out is likely to cause the resolution of environmental issues to back-up like trains at Victoria Station.

Ms Spelman has an interesting background in matters relevant to production of such an important cash crop, or the ‘ultimate miracle product’ as she describes it. For three years from 1981 she was a Sugar Beet commodity secretary at the National Farmers Union and then deputy director of the International Confederation of European Beet Growers – Heaven knows what its acronym is – from 1984-89. That was followed by a research fellowship for the Centre for European Agricultural Studies. Her statement today makes reference to our coalition being the ‘greenest government ever’ and shows that she clearly understands that many businesses will ‘now have targets for when all of the palm oil they use will be sustainable’.

What caught my interest in her statement was that today she will be addressing ‘an international business audience’, not a group of significant or proactive environmental organisations who might put controls and sustainable management in place before the grubby fingers of international finance and commodity dealing soil it beyond recovery. But then, an environment secretary should put business interests ahead of environmental issues, no?

She has a lot of experience in speaking on environmental matters and, together with her agri-business background, clearly has a good grasp of the commercial aspects of how one might manage this ‘miracle product’. Having read the vague and evasive text of her puff this morning I’m wondering, however, if somewhere off in the wings the ground isn’t being prepared for companies such as Spelman, Cormack & Associates and their like, to manage not the environmental implications but the financial benefits of this ‘miracle product’. Spelman, Cormack and Associates is a consultancy that she set up with her husband and which lobbies on the food and biotechnology industry. Although she resigned as a director in June 2009 and the firm is reportedly not earning revenue her closeness to it and the real possibility of a serious conflict of interest have caused some questions being raised. Those good guys, The Sunlight Centre, have written to the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [Defra] pointing out these concerns. The Guardian reported in May this year that the response, in part, was ‘The secretary of state and Defra’s permanent secretary will be ensuring in the usual way that the secretary of state’s private interests are declared and handled in line with the ministerial code’. Well, in light of what she wrote this morning and the fact that I know about her lobbying background and family interests it seems to me that her ‘private interests’ have certainly been declared. But that’s just what I’m worried about, her private interests.

Ms Spelman has a bit of form. There was the uncomfortable episode involving her employment of a ‘nanny’ whom she paid for with her parliamentary staffing allowance and which she had to repay. There was also the interest in where her main residence was at the time with her responses generating both opacity and Moonwalking.

Ms Spelman is clearly a consummate and intelligent politician and there is no suggestion that she has acted inappropriately. But you have to wonder just how clear things are; after all, she did claim £40000 on expenses for bills and cleaning against her second home while hubby, who was campaigning for a seat in the European Union, was claiming that the same place was his main home. I’m scratching my head a little here; me and Mission Control both know where we live .

I took an interest in palm oil several years ago after a visit to Malaysia and a late-night conversation fuelled by a lethal combination of environmental concern and Tiger beer. The product is a double-edged sword generating income across a very broad market but bringing with it the worst of human deprivation on mankind and the environment. Palm oil is derived from the pulp of the fruit or seed kernel of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis. It’s used for cooking, in food product manufacture, industrial processes and, of course, our future’s saviour, biofuel. But the true ‘miracle’ of palm oil is that it grows a long way away in Third World areas. This means that you can minimise and manage the concerns of the troublesome local people, who are easily dispossessed, while avoiding pestiferous environmental organisations.

The response, as always and as disingenuously referred to this morning by our environment secretary, is to manage the environmental impact. But then, of course, if you did you’d have to add the cost of controlled sustainability, compensation for local people, addressing eradication of biodiversity and the carbon mileage incurred between Asia and the West. Then the ‘miracle product’ would become a little less profitable.

The question is, how do you manage all these issues if you are secretary of state for the environment? Well, you start by addressing ‘an international business audience’ so that commercial opportunities are dealt with first; then you put in place rhetorical statements that sound like you are dealing with the consequences of a frightful mono-crop culture but which have no real impact because you are being cautious so as to avoid mistakes that will lead to real environmental damage; then you tax the profits of the companies that exploit the ‘miracle product’ but leave sufficient overseas-earnings loopholes so that political donations keep you and your political party in office. Finally, you make loudly-trumpeted gestures and perhaps throw aid in the direction of the environmental and social issues. But you won’t get a consensus and you know and we know it will not be enough and it will be after the fact, so it will also be too late.

But by then you may have left politics and moved into the consultancy business, lobbying the food and biotechnology industry again and, this time, perhaps for biofuel concessions; especially if your husband and the little firm you set up all those years ago have done well in the interim.