The Nutella Problem

Sitting down to the breakfast table this Sunday morning I am confronted by a jar of Nutella. It feels very much like a rebuke, as just yesterday I attended a lecture about how the owners of sugar and palm oil plantations in Central America have systematically driven small farmers off their land and instituted a system of poorly paid seasonal labour under appalling conditions. Oligarchs in Honduras, after backing a military coup against a president who began reforms, have used their own militias and the national military in a violent campaign against landless peasants.

The first two ingredients of Nutella: sugar and palm oil.

Let’s be clear that Nutella represents the summit of human achievement. Spreadable chocolate? If cavemen had known about that, they’d not have bothered inventing fire. Unless they wanted toast, of course.

Lab studies have shown that rats with unlimited access to sugar will eat themselves to death. Only the wisdom of education and an unwillingness to look like a pig in front the kids we’re meant to educate separates human adult behaviour from our innate desire to follow our rat brethren to a sweet and early grave. It’s a realistic prospect. Both sugarcane and oil palms are tremendously productive plants. They generate more calories per hectare than almost any other crops – calories that can be turned into food, into energy, or into an astonishing array of consumer goods.The advantages can hardly be overlooked.

Anything desirable, however, will bring out the Gollum in our behaviour. Basic human decency and respect for another person’s rights, the limits of local ecosystem and planetary boundaries; these can fall to secondary importance. They are generally one or more steps removed from a plausible rationale: we’re only destroying this small part of the ecosystem (failing to account for cumulative effects); we signed a contract with that peasant and now his land is ours (failing to account for a vast difference in understanding and bargaining power); we’re creating thousands of jobs (only on the condition that they are filled by people who are as good as expendable).

But then, there is the jar of Nutella on my breakfast table. A table facing the high-efficiency glass window that overlooks a stable of bicycles. What failure of perception, what failure of will, what desire for chocolaty goodness, led to this apparently jarring juxtaposition of jar, organic bread and free-range hard boiled eggs?

The French government hoped to provide consumers a nudge in the direction of lower saturated fat consumption by proposing, unsuccessfully, the ‘Nutella tax’, which would have quadrupled the rate on palm oil, raising the price of a 500g jar by 3 cents – probably neither a hardship nor an effective measure. Other efforts are aimed at the producer end, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which certifies adherence to a range of good criteria. To date about 16% of globally traded palm oil adheres to RSPO.

Earlier this year the European Commission published a report on the deforestation induced by Europe’s purchase of imported goods. Contrary to many people’s expectations, palm oil ranked rather low on the list, largely because much of it is used closer to the big producers in Asia. What comes through loud and clear, however, is the huge proportion of the EU’s deforestation impact due to the cultivation of soybeans, particularly in Brazil. These are not the soybeans in the organic fair trade tofu in my refrigerator. No, they are the soybeans used to fatten the vast population of European livestock that feeds our meat-eating habits. It’s the package of bacon incongruously stacked on top of the tofu that is destroying the Amazon. How did that bacon get into my refrigerator?

Unfortunately, the range of issues underlying problems like those experienced by farmers in Honduras, Indonesia, or Brazil goes far beyond what can be captured in a tax, a standard, or European law. People whose land rights or ‘only’ traditional, or who have lost their farms through legal means in which they have no voice, will be tough to capture in statistics. The ‘unused’ land being converted to productive agriculture may have been home to whole villages, who relied on it for subsistence. Add to that the vast flexibility in products derived from these plants, in a system of global trade, and quickly the task of tracking poor practices is hugely complex.

So where does responsibility lie, and where are the solutions?

Like all answers to complex problems, it can’t be capture in one word. It is and-and. Consumers who are provided zero information about the impact of their purchase at the point of sale and must rely on the odd newspaper article for their knowledge can hardly be expected to drive an entire value chain to change its ways. Especially when the Scylla of environmental degradation halfway across the planet stands opposite the Charybdis of children in a grocery store shopping cart forcefully expressing the agony they will experience absent an immediate transfusion of chocolate spread.

Standards may have their failings, but they are gaining ground and making improvements. Efforts like FSC and MSC have long become mainstream, and many others are following in their footsteps. Lawmakers have also shown that they can learn. The European Parliament’s decision last week to back a proposal to limit the amount of first-generation biofuels qualifying towards the renewable energy target is, though too weak, a recognition that better approaches are out there. Clearly far more needs to be done, but never before has their been such widespread recognition that what we do in Europe is inextricably linked to what happens in far away places, to other people.

The far greater struggle, however, is taking place where those people live. Land and ecosystem degradation as well as human rights violations go hand in hand with a lack of sufficient democratic rule, legal process, and political power. The high level of destructiveness wrought by the production of global commodities is inextricably linked to the scale of operations of large concerns and the governments who favour them. Answers to curbing the environmental destructiveness of our consumer habits and their production methods have to start with our support for equity and law. It will never come just from environmental legislation, standards, or my switching to strawberry jam. ┬áThe latter is, however, in my power. And once that jar of Nutella is done I won’t buy it again. Or bacon.

Come to think of it, maybe I’ll just go back to bed.

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