Former Scouts Meet With Top Girl Scout Officials to Discuss Use of Palm Oil in Cookies

Today former Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen attended a long awaited meeting with top officials of the Girl Scouts of America (GSA) organization.  This is the latest development in the two former scouts’ five year cause to convince GSA to halt its use of palm oil in the production of Thin Mints, Tagalongs, and Do-si-dos.  

Five years ago, when the girls were preparing for their annual cookie-selling season, they decided to donate all proceeds to the cause of the orangutan.  While researching the orangutan, however, the pair discovered that deforestation to make room for palm oil plantations was one of the largest factors contributing to the loss of the species.  That was the same year that bakers who produce the Girl Scouts’ cookies began using palm oil.

There are two species of orangutans (the Bornean and the Sumatran), and both are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List (the Sumatran species is listed as critically endangered).  Orangutans are native to Malaysia and Indonesia, which are coincidentally the two largest producers of palm oil.  According to the 2004 publication of Oil World Annual, in 2001 Indonesia and Malaysia together produced 83% of the world’s palm oil.  The girls began a petition to end GSA’s use of palm oil in cookies.  Two years ago Jane Goodall, one of their heroes, even signed the petition.  But in addition to the petition, Vorva and Tomtishen continued to research the prevalence of palm oil and the devastation the oil palm plantations create in rain forests.

They discovered that while palm oil is the second most consumed edible oil in the world (second to soybean oil), the U.S. actually consumes very little.  That being said, half of all packaged food in the U.S. contains at least a small amount of palm oil and our demand for it is rising.  Growing prominence of palm oil in the U.S. food market began five years ago when food manufacturers were forced to delineate the amount of trans fat present in their products more clearly.  Because palm oil contains no trans fat, many food producers began to use it in place of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.  However, palm oil is still considered to be far less healthful than other oils such as olive oil or canola oil.  

On top of the human health issues surrounding palm oil, cultivation of oil palm trees is also degrading the health of the earth’s rain forests.  Tropical rain forests are home to over 70% of all of the species on earth, including the orangutan.  Most of the plants that have been found to have cancer-fighting properties originate in the rain forest.  And the rain forest helps to regulate our climate on a global scale.  They are clearly a vital resource not only for the people who live in or near them, but also for the rest of humanity.  However, in Malaysia and Indonesia, more and more of the rain forest is being cleared to make room for oil palm plantations. According to a 2005 article by Joseph Tek Choon Yee and M.R. Chandran, in Indonesia the amount of land dedicated to palm oil production has increased by a factor of 30 from 1973 to 2003.  During the same period, the amount of land in Malaysia used to cultivate the crop increased by a factor of over 10.  Since both indonesia and Malaysia were originally mostly rain forest, every acre that is used to grow the oil palm tree is lost habitat for the orangutan and thousands of other species.

Many companies, recognizing the threats to the environment associated with palm oil, have pledged to limit their use of palm oil and to only use sustainably sourced palm oil.  Currently, only about 6% of palm oil is produced in a sustainable manner.  By the year 2015 the Netherlands, Seventh Generation, Unilever, SC Johnson, and others have all pledged to use only sustainable palm oil.  Whether Vorva and Tomtishen will be able to convince the Girl Scouts of America to follow suit is yet to be determined.

Photo credit: pecad.fas.usda.gov/highlights/2007/12/Indonesia_palmoil/

Rural Himalayan Farmers Getting Rich off Caterpillar Fungus

Scientists say that the harvesting of a parasitic fungus that grows on the Tibetan Plateau in China is creating revenue for rural communities. The fungus manifests itself on the bodies of caterpillar larvae and grows like finger-sized blades of grass out of the dead caterpillar heads.

The nutty-tasting fungus holds high value due to its medicinal benefits such as a treatment for cancer and aging as well as being a libido booster. And according to Daniel Winkler, a fungus researcher and head of Eco-Montane Consulting, the fungus, “medically, seems to deliver.”

Some Chinese grind up the fungus and sell it as powder, while others use it as a garnish to display their wealth.

In Tibet and other nearby Himalayan regions of Nepal and Bhutan, yak herders who harvest the fungus are reaping large financial benefits. The value of this fungus rose 900% between 1997 and 2008. To keep up with the demand increase, farmers and harvesters spend about four weeks each spring searching for this fungal gold. 

The sudden rise of interest in fungal investments, though, has also caused disputes over access to local pastures where the fungus is abundant. In July, 2007, for example, eight people were shot to death in a gun battle over prime fungal turf in Yushu, a town close to the border with Tibet. 

“Given the value of the fungus, though,” Winkler added, “it’s remarkable how few people get killed in conflict over its harvest.” 

Though some scientists are concerned about the scarcity of the product, data collected so far suggests that it is still plentiful. Although the number of fungi picked per person has dropped, the market has not seen a decline in availability of the product.

Photo Credit: fws.gov/northeast/longislandrefuges/wildlife.html