The True Cost of Shampoo and Sugar

30/09/2013 11:57 BST | Updated 30/09/2013 11:57 BST

A few weeks ago I swapped my usual stomping ground of Oxford for a similarly beautiful location, Brussels. I was fortunate enough to be taken as part of a collective of NGOs and charities to the European Union; a life changing experience in itself. We went there to talk about something else that is life changing for entirely differently reasons; land grabs.

In Asia and Africa, land grabs are becoming an increasingly occurrence, with multinationals purchasing enormous tracts of land for various reasons; biofuels, sugar crops, palm oil etc. Some of these purchases have resulted in multinationals owning areas comparable in size to several British counties, often hundreds if not thousands of acres. Friends of The Earth report that over 1.5 million hectares of land have been grabbed for palm oil alone, whilst the Guardian estimated that land acquisitions up to 2010 measured more than twice the size of the UK, this has only grown since. Whilst the ethics of a single or a few companies owning such a large amount of land deserves debate, it is the means that the land is acquired that is most disturbing, and the effects that has on the local population.

The fact that the land taken is often so large presents an incentive for companies to bid under market value. This is quite easy when you consider that the individuals occupying the land may be subsistence farmers, living hand to mouth. When offered a lump sum for their land, irrespective of the real value of the land, most would jump at the chance. However, that payoff is short term. They may have some capital, but no longer a food supply, or a way to grow food for trade. Also, few have legal training, can afford to have their land valued or are even able to read and write, so many sign away their land without actually knowing the full implications of their actions.

Those that do sign for a nominal fee are, perversely, the luck ones. Land grabs can get hostile and violent, with cases being reported of intimidation and beatings of residents being forcibly evicted from their own homes for the simply reason that Western consumers want more shampoo or chocolate, and that demands more palm oil or sugar cane. The Times reported last year of an incident in Kenya that left 29 dead; mostly hacked to death with machetes, some gored with spears.

Beyond the human cost, land grabs (particularly for biofuels) can affect local food security by displacing land previously used for food crops. With the land taken up to grow food for fuels, locals cannot access the land to grow crops for themselves meaning they either have to relocate, go hungry or spend what little they have on food. It has also been speculated that this also contributed to recent price spikes in food, and the volatile price of grain and other staples. It is also hugely environmentally detrimental, with the land needing to be cleared and intensively farmed (often with industrial machinery) to make it suitable for biofuels.

It goes beyond food though. This kind of whole sale change affects families at a root level. Children are forced out of school. It destroys local heritage and culture. Families are split apart. The environmental costs too are huge, with land being "slashed and burnt", a crude but effective way of burning land to create clearings but releasing massive amounts of carbon. In Indonesia in particular, these clearings of land unearth newly formed coal desists that are still volatile, resulting in sporadic fires across miles of cleared land; both dangerous to the workers and to the climate with the carbon it releases.

Despite all this, I am guilty of being a cause of this. I wash with palm oil based products, I eat the chocolate made with sugar from land grabs, and I have put biofuels into my car. As humans, we are not going to grow out these habits soon, but nor should we.

As consumers, there is much we can do. We can pressure companies into treating land acquisitions ethically i.e. paying a good price and hiring those who have been displaced; often too many multinationals fail to hire local talent. We can push our M(E)Ps on green legislation to reduce the need for biofuels through cleaner technology or more efficient biofuels that require less land, and thus land grabs. By all means enjoy your shampoo and that bar of chocolate at the back of your fridge. Remember though, for that brief moment of pleasure, how much suffering was needed in producing that moment, and how much sweeter that bar or soft drink would taste if you knew what you consumed actually gave someone a decent standard of living, and a safe place to live.