Palm Oil and the Girl Scouts: Is There a Sustainable Solution?

Palm oil has been in the news a lot lately. Used in those ubiquitous cookies sold by Girl Scouts (and, it turns out, almost everything else we use or eat), palm oil nearly always comes from destructive land practices.

A Little Background

In 2006, the Girl Scouts decided to remove trans-fats from their cookies by replacing partially hydrogenated oils used in baking with palm oil. Palm oil is a cheap, low-grade oil that contains a lot of saturated fat. The saturated fats cause palm oil to solid at room temperature, rather than liquid, which makes it useful for a lot of products โ€“ not just processed foods, but also shampoos, cleaning products, and so forth.

Palm Oil and Orangutans

A few years ago, two Girl Scouts in Michigan, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, studied orangutans for their Bronze Award and found a link between the increasing number of palm oil plantations in southeast Asia and orangutan habitat loss. They began to remove products containing palm oil from their lives. When it was time to sell Girl Scout cookies, they checked the ingredients and found palm oil.

At that point, Rhiannon and Madison began a campaign. They’ve asked the Girl Scouts to either stop using palm oil in the cookies or to use only sustainably grown palm oil.

Sustainable Palm Oil?

So far, the Girl Scouts have insisted they can’t change the cookie recipe.ย  Palm oil is the only oil with the right flavor and texture and there aren’t enough sustainable palm oil producers to make all the cookies.

According to a spokesperson for Kellogg’s, quoted in this Wall Street Journal article, only 6% of palm oil is sustainably grown. But why isn’t a tree crop already a sustainable product?

Palm oil’s many uses in processed foods and household goods and its low cost have increased the demand for it in recent years, especially as companies try to move away from trans-fats. Not only that, but palm oil can be used to make biofuels, further increasing demand.

Property Rights and Deforestation

Deforestation is the biggest issue directly affecting the orangutans. Orangutans need a variety of fruits and plants within a certain area in order to find enough to eat and live. Deforestation also affects global warming by releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Property rights is another major issue. The new palm oil plantations are built in rainforests where people are already living. A corporation comes in, moves the people out, and sets up business, often with the consent or knowledge of the government. Native peoples rarely have land titles and so have little standing against a large corporation.

What’s Being Done?

A group composed of palm oil buyers and growers, processors, traders, banks, and NGOs called the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) currently provides certification for sustainable palm growers. However, their standards do not include reducing or stopping deforestation and the certification itself is expensive, preventing small farmers from being able to afford it.

Indonesia’s Efforts at Sustainable Palm Oil

Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil, accounting for about a third of all palm oil produced in the world. In an effort to reverse negative perceptions of the industry, Indonesia has set up its own certification for sustainable palm oil. The cost of certification will be kept low, so that money will not be a factor preventing a grower from being sustainable. All growers in Indonesia will need to be certified by 2014.

They’re also looking at a moratorium on deforestation for palm oil plantations, but that wouldn’t go into effect until 2020.

Palm Oil and the Girl Scouts: Sustainable?

It appears the Girl Scouts are right. There is very little sustainable palm oil in the world, although efforts are underway to change that.

In the meantime, do Girl Scout cookies really need palm oil? Girl Scout cookies have been made since 1917 and palm oil was only added in 2006. There must have been a recipe sometime in the last 94 years that had neither palm oil nor trans-fats.

Madison and Rhiannon have done exactly what the Girl Scouts wants them to do โ€“ they identified a problem they care about and set about looking for the solution. Maybe the Girl Scouts could take a lesson from their own members.

Image by Marit and Toomas Hinnosaar, used with Creative Commons license.

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