Curate’s Letter: Christmas 2019

Oil palm plantation

Last month, I wrote about harvest and plastic consumption and how the harvest ended up on our breakfast tables. I received a query as to how and why Christians should be concerned about this and why I would write about that in a parish magazine. Inherent in our worship of the Christ are our Christian values. For all churches in the Anglican Communion, of which the Scottish Episcopal Church is one, there are five marks of mission.[1]These are:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

These are not in descending order of importance, all five are equally important. The fifth is ably demonstrated by Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment, Laudato Si’.[2] This is found on the Vatican’s website in a range of languages for anyone who is interested. The environment is not just there as a resource for us to use but is also inherent to our spiritual and physical wellbeing and indeed, the future of humanity. The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ.

How we care for our environment is integral to our lives. This care is not just a plea on my behalf, but is actually something we all need to do as Christians. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth. This needs to come into our understanding in how we celebrate Christmas. How we choose presents for one another, how we decorate our homes and how we choose what chocolates to buy. 

In the shops, shelves are piled high with a varying assortment of chocolate delights all marketed in a way to say ‘Buy me! Eat me!’ Differing centres, hard toffees which seem to be designed to break teeth or soft gooey ones that equally frustrate the person eating them. Why am I choosing to write about chocolate? Why aren’t I writing the letter you would expect at Christmas time about why we celebrate Christmas? Well, firstly, if you’re reading this magazine that is obviously about Church then I am guessing you are quite well versed in why we, as Christians, celebrate the Christ Mass.

I don’t know how many of you chose to watch David Attenborough’s program on the BBC about the plight of orangutans? I don’t know how many of you were or are still aware of the continued burning of the Amazon rainforest? We have, in recent weeks, been bombarded with two places in the world where deforestation is being carried out at a rate of knots that has not only adversely affected the biodiversity of the region, but is being done because of the demand of the more highly developed regions of the world. Why? Because of our increased and exponentially increasing consumption of palm oil, soya and cheap beef. 

Palm oil has seen much press in recent weeks, with companies such as Iceland announcing that its own-label brand no longer contains palm oil.[3] Palm oil is cheap and mass-produced. It is currently the highest yielding oil which means that its use and production is here to stay.[4] So there is no clear cut decision of whether to boycott palm oil or not. It is found in so many of the products we use. Over half of all supermarket products contain palm oil – from food to cleaners and even in cosmetics. For example, biofuel, soap, biscuits, and chocolate.[5] In essence it became the ‘new oil on the block’ in response to the health scares over hydrogenated oils in mass-produced foods.

Therefore, what as consumers should we do? The answer is long and complex, and more than the space given to this in the parish magazine. However, I would like us, as consumers in a highly developed country, to take some time to think about our consumer choices and the effect they can have on the environment. However, a simple boycott of palm oil is not the answer. Other oils used in the production of food, biofuel, cleaners and so on will actually have a greater negative impact on the environment than palm oil does. This is because they yield less oil. So, therefore, an analysis needs to happen of what palm oil is being used. Unfortunately, this is quite arduous but as Christians, we should help lead the way in making changes – however small – to our lifestyles. 

Pressure is required by the public and non-government organisations (NGOs) to change the policy and mindset of industrial corporations. For example, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is an industry-led initiative that seeks to respect the lives of the local people and minimise the environmental impacts of production. They terminated the membership of four companies in 2018 and suspended 55 more.[6] These are quite depressing figures and it is only through consumer pressure that these companies will seek change. 

Palm oil can be sourced sustainably and it can be fairly traded. Traidcraft state that “Palm oil can be a great crop for smallholders, as you don’t need much land, the crop is fairly low maintenance and high yielding.” Known as Fairpalm, it is certified organic. It is found in Traidcraft’s ‘Clean and Fair’ range of cleaning products, as well as biscuits and chocolate products. Chocolate itself does not tend to contain palm oil, but biscuits that are dipped in chocolate or chocolates with soft or hard centres will likely contain palm oil. Unfortunately, companies are well versed in cloaking palm oil as something else so it can be quite hard to work out what does contain palm oil.

Traidcraft was originally set up by Tearfund, a Christian charity. Thus, Christian input into pressurising large corporations has existed for a long time. It is up to us as consumers to ensure that charities, like Traidcraft, can continue to exert pressure through our support of their activities. Traidcraft stalls in the church are one way to doing that, as is choosing to buy fairly traded products in supermarkets. By doing so, you are buying into an ethos that allows smallholders across the world to build their skills and have a fair chance in a trading economy, while bringing up their children with the opportunities to go school. In effect, you are meeting at least four of the five marks of mission. Responding to human need with love, transforming unjust structures of society, safeguarding the integrity of creation, and helping to sustain and renew the life of the earth. In this Christmas season, wouldn’t a conscious decision to switch to Fairtrade or Traidcraft products be a present worth giving to smallholders and the environment, this Christmas? 







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