The price of a cup of tea

The BBC’s investigation of workers’ conditions on tea plantations in Assam makes depressing reading. The squalor and poverty behind one of the world’s favourite drinks is appalling.

It is striking that the response of Unilever, a company often held up as a beacon of responsibility and sustainability, is so weak. According to the BBC, Unilever knows there is more to do, but that ‘progress has been made’. Presumably that means that conditions were even worse in the past. And does Unilever measure the impact of its operations on tea workers at the bottom of the supply chain?

Also, the Rainforest Alliance that operates one of the more widely used certification processes admits that its audit process, which is based on annual inspections, is inadequate. Moreover many supply chain inspection processes are based on less than annual inspections. So the BBC investigation has the potential to undermine confidence in a number of  well-known certification processes.

The response to the Rana Plaza disaster was a legally binding commitment involving the unions. Is it time for something similar for the tea industry?


Unilever has such a nice image

But is it complicit with the TTIP process?

Articles like this one in the Guardian have celebrated the virtues and actions of Unilever in both environmental and social fields. And it is true that they have done a number of positive things and Paul Polman, their CEO, seems personally committed to sustainability. You would have thought that Unilever would therefore not be in favour of a process like the TTIP which threatens food safety and democracy on a large scale.

But it looks as though either he does not really have a grip on the organisation or he is a very cynical manipulator. The fact is that large food companies and other agri-business corporations are amongst the most active lobbyists involved in the TTIP process. True, it is very difficult to find out exactly what is going on, but certainly Food and Drink Europe (which represents the likes of Nestle and Unilever) seems to be one of the most active lobbyists.

Is Food and Drink Europe properly representing Unilever’s views? Is Unilever happy with the whole thrust of the TTIP process? There appears to be nothing on the Unilever website that  mentions TTIP.

So I wonder what is going on?


When science clashes with society…

Should public honour be given to scientists irrespective of the social impact of their researches? Would it have been right for Robert Oppenheimer to have been awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on the Manhattan Project?

The World Food Prize is a case in point. The 2013 World Food Prize has been awarded to three people who developed GMOs. One of them is from Monsanto, another from Syngenta. The prize recognizes work to produce RoundUp Ready crops amongst others. But there is no mention of the controversies surrounding these products or any attempt to take into account their wider environmental or social consequences.

It looks like the World Food Prize organisation has been poorly advised. At the least a more extensive analysis of the impact of GMOs should be given.


Enclosing the sea

Large fishing companies are trying to privatise one of the few remaining wildernesses: the contents of the sea. The UK Association of Fish Producers (UKAFPO) is a secretive organisation with no discernible website. It is likely its ultimate sponsors are large, wealthy companies that already monopolise the majority of the British catch.

UKAFPO is suing the government because it has decided that UKAFPO members should not retain the right to its unused quota for fish and this should be allocated to smaller fishermen. Smaller fishing boats make stronger (and prettier) communities and they often fish more sustainably than larger, industrial fishing boats. UKAFPO’s argument appears to be that they have invested as though they owned the full quota, so they ought to keep it. If that’s the case, it is a very poor argument indeed.

But even more is at stake: why should anyone own the wilderness? The nearest we can get to that these days is to leave the ‘ownership’ in the hands of the state.



Now we need permission to be ethical!

The European Court of Justice ruled recently that it is lawful for the public sector to procure on ethical grounds. Given that the public sector is about 40% of the economy, that is a relief. The FairTrade Foundation has welcomed the ruling.

But they also said that organic or fairtrade labels couldn’t be used directly as the basis for decisions. The underlying social and enviornmental criteria need to be spelt out. That could cause a problem for smaller public bodies.

The underlying directives are being revised in any case. Hopefully the ruling enables simpler and more sensible directives to be drawn up, including enabling social criteria to be used in the more straightforward way that environmental criteria can currently.

But what was the European Commission doing in the first place bringing this action against a Dutch authority that was trying to buy fairtrade products?


Carry On Guzzling

The Lancet, the academic community, the government and the World Health Organisation all agree that obesity is a serious threat. Interestingly, so does the food industry.

So, as a nation, should we:

a) just take individual responsibility and eat less? (Requires a strong and persistent public education campaign. People may also need a little help from the authorities: Japan has legal waistline standards.)

b) change the formulation of processed foods, so that we can eat as much as we like without getting fat? Or change the labelling of products, so we know how much food we are about to eat? (This is the voluntary approach favoured by industry. It shows little sign of reversing obesity trends.)

c) increase the price of food so that we buy and eat less of it? (This is likely to happen in Hungary. The UK government has come out against it.)

The correct answer is probably: all of the above. If we were serious about it, we would undoubtedly pursue action on all fronts. What’s more, it is likely to save everyone money – except perhaps for those food companies that refused to re-formulate their products.

So why has Public Health Minister Anne Milton ruled out any action by government? She seems content with new labelling practices by industry when it’s waistlines, not tag lines that matter.

Could this have anything to do with connections between government and industry?


Feeding Frenzy

The IDS of Sussex University has just released a report that addresses the world’s need for food. Yet the headlines say the the world needs GM and new technologies. What is going on?

The report was produced for the UK government’s BIS. It points out that the reasons for hunger today are complex, including political factors as much as technology. This is consistent with the FAO view that the world is producing as much food as is currently needed – but that it is not being distributed.

However the press have reported the claim that without GM, all is lost. This is not true and it is not what the reports says. So why has this happened? Is it mis-briefing by those with an interest in GM? Is it the poverty of the imagination of the media?


Kraftwork cut out

The CEO of Kraft hints that the Cadbury approach to the social – and enviornmental – bottom lines may not be dead.

According to her, not only are reports of job deaths ‘greatly overstated’, but there is likely to be some activity building public-private partnerships in the developing world.

Kraft will have its work cut out to ensure that Cadbury’s approach really does live on. And how far will Cadbury’s ethical intent permeate Kraft? As yet, there appears to be no statement on either Kraft’s or Cadbury’s websites about any new approach to its responsibilities.


Is responsibility worth protection?

The Cadbury family lament the passing of ‘their’ family business into foreign hands. And there is much hand-wringing from all, including the Business Secretary. But ‘nothing can be done’, because to do so would be protectionism, and might lead to obstacles in UK companies taking over others…

When companies take each other over, there are many protections for shareholders, including careful due diligence. But what about other stakeholders? In the Cadbury case there must be a large risk to the workforce, especially given the leveraged nature of this deal. Beyond that, the tradition of social repsonsibility upon which Cadbury’s was founded might disappear. Kraft do not seem to have given anyguarantees on that front.


Quality Conlusion?

The FSA website claims that there are “no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food”.

However the research on which this claim is based does support this statement. Its conclusions say that there is “no evidence of health benefits from consuming organic compared to conventionally produced foods” and that “no evidence was detected” of differences between organic and conventional foods in respect of the majority of nutrients . It also laments the absence of high quality studies on these subjects.

It is a shame, then, that the FSA claims it does not have an axe to grind, being “neither pro nor anti organic food”. If that were the case, wouldn’t the proper headline be something like “we just don’t know whether organic food makes any difference – and we would like to find out”?

Could it be that the FSA has been leant on by…someone?