Image: Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen in 2010
Sylvia Sankaran
Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, seen in their Girl Scout uniforms last year, want to get rid of palm oil in Thin Mints and other Girl Scout cookies.
By
msnbc.com
updated 9/29/2011 4:49:30 PM ET 2011-09-29T20:49:30

A five-year campaign by two Michigan girls to make Girl Scout cookies more environmentally friendly has prompted the youth organization to curb the use of palm oil in its iconic baked goods.

Girl Scouts of the USA isn't eliminating the ingredient, but it says that beginning with the 2012-13 cookie season, each box will include a GreenPalm logo as a symbol of Girl Scouts' commitment to address concerns about the deforestation of sensitive lands caused by production of palm oil.

Environmentalists say the illegal clearing of rainforests in Southeast Asia to make room for palm oil plantations has pushed the orangutan to the brink of extinction and threatens other native animals.

In its announcement Wednesday, the Girl Scouts said it has directed its bakers to use as little palm oil as possible, and only in recipes where there is no alternative. It wants its bakers to move to a segregated, certified sustainable palm oil source by 2015.

The Scouts will buy GreenPalm certificates to support the sustainable production of palm oil. The certificates offer a premium price to palm oil producers who are operating within best-practices guidelines set by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, an organization of palm oil producers, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, environmentalists and others.

Girl Scouts of the USA will also become an affiliate member of the roundtable.

The teen activists and environmentalists welcomed the announcement as a good first step, but said much more needs to be done.

"The production of palm oil is causing some of the world's most precious rainforests to disappear faster than a box of Thin Mints," said Lindsey Allen, forest campaign director for the Rainforest Action Network.

Girl Scouts sells more than 200 million boxes of cookies per year. It estimates that its cookies account for less than one-one-hundredth of 1 percent of all the palm oil used globally.

"Girl Scouts' palm oil use is very small, but our voice is big," Amanda Hamaker, Girl Scouts manager of product sales, said in a press release. "The world's food supply is intricately tied to the use of palm oil, so we believe promoting sustainable manufacturing principles is the most responsible approach for Girl Scouts."

In a follow-up email Thursday to msnbc.com, Hamaker called the girls’ campaign "extremely significant."

"This is the first time on record that GSUSA has changed our practices related to the activities of the youth we serve," Hamaker said. "The girls identified an area where GSUSA clearly needed to provide leadership, and we are delighted to have found a way to do so."

Saving the orangutan
Wednesday's announcement follows a high-profile, years-long campaign by two Girl Scouts, Madison Vorva, 16, and Rhiannon Tomtishen, 15, to make Girl Scout cookies "rainforest-safe."

Madison and Rhiannon formed Project ORANGS in 2006 with the goal of removing palm oil as an ingredient in Girl Scout cookies. They started the campaign after learning that the habitat of the orangutan is threatened.

Image: Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen
Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen
Madison and Rhiannon are seen with a poster of their rainforest protection project in April 2007.

They stopped selling cookies and began lobbying other Scouts to join their cause. Along the way, the picked up the support of international environmental groups including the Rainforest Action Network and the Union of Concerned Scientists. They also set up a Project ORANGS Facebook page.

The teens said they were excited that Girl Scouts is finally acting to address the palm oil used in its cookies.

"We hope that today's announcement shows that Girl Scouts USA is serious about ensuring that their cookies don't destroy forests or endanger orangutans and other wildlife, and that they'll strongly urge their bakers to find an alternative oil that is both rainforest-safe and socially responsible," Madison said in a statement released by the Rainforest Actrion Network. "As a nonprofit organization, not a food company, there should be no question that Girl Scout Cookies contain ingredients that live up to the values described in the Girl Scout Law."

"Purchasing GreenPalm certificates and working towards segregated, certified sustainable palm oil by 2015 are steps in the right direction. However, the most important part of their policy is the commitment to use palm oil only if there is no alternative," Rhiannon said in a statement. "We hope to work closely with the Girl Scouts and experts to find such an alternative."

Allen, of Rainforest Action Network, praised the girls' "amazing activism" but added: "Unfortunately, nothing in today's statement ensures that palm oil connected to rainforest destruction will no longer be found in Girl Scout cookies."

Image: An orangutan roams an enclosure in Ragun
Romeo Acad  /  AFP - Getty Images
An orangutan roams an enclosure in Ragunan zoo in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Jan. 27. Their numbers are rapidly declining in the wild.

Sarah Roquemore of the Union of Concerned Scientists added, "While we applaud this initial announcement, they are still many steps away from ensuring that their cookies are not driving deforestation."

There are fewer than 6,600 Sumatran orangutans in the wild today, down from an estimated 85,000 in 1900. If this rate of reduction were to continue, the Sumatran orangutan could become the first of the great apes living today to go extinct in the wild, with local populations in parts of Sumatra disappearing as early as 2015, the United Nations says.

Oil palm plantations are a highly lucrative source of income for many Indonesians, but researchers say they have become the primary cause of the orangutans' decline, wiping out its rainforest habitat in Borneo and Sumatra.

Palm oil is found in bread, cookies, crackers, chips, margarine and other foods as well as personal care and beauty products such as soap and lipstick.

Some scientists and nutritionists also say palm oil is unhealthy, and have suggested alternatives such as non-hydrogenated soy, canola, corn and peanut oils.

Cookie dough
Girl Scouts of the USA has more than 3.2 million members, and Girl Scout cookie sales are a major revenue-generator for local troops. In the 2010-11 cookie season, Girl Scouts across the nation about 207 million boxes of cookies — including its best-selling Thin Mints, Samoas, Tagalongs, Trefoils and Do-Si-Dos — for a record$760 million in cookie revenue, up from $714 million the previous year.

Girl Scouts of the USA says about 70 percent of the proceeds of each cookie stays in the local Girl Scout council; the balance goes to the baker to pay for the cookies.

Girl Scouts officials didn't say whether the two teens' campaign had impacted cookie sales but noted that the number of boxes sold in 2010-11 increased 4.5 percent over the previous year.

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