If you're new to the issue of palm oil, it's a vegetable oil produced from the palm tree Elaeis guineensiswhich could inspire images of warm tropical beaches except when it's grown in the millions of hectares.
The resulting oil from its fruits which is known as Crude Palm Oil has physical properties that allows it to be split into derivatives and fractions which is then used in everything from donut toppings to cookies to shampoos!
This flexibility and its cheaper price compared to other vegetable oils is leading tropical countries like Malaysia and Indonesia to plant millions of hectares of industrial palm oil plantations. In the process, centuries old forests have been clear cut to make way for these plantations. It is against this background that activist groups have created vigorous palm oil campaigns.
2014 the Year of Commitments.
Rainforest Action Network launched its palm oil campaign last year aptly named "The Snack Food 20" as the group challenged twenty of the biggest snack manufacturers to stop using what it calls "Conflict Palm Oil." Greenpeace which has a long history of campaigns against palm oil companies pulled off a memorable stunt when it unfurled two huge banners outside Procter & Gamble's office in Cincinnati. This was accompanied by a video that explained what the issues were about.
The problems being caused by massive deforestation for palm oil plantations was also addressed by institutional bankers who sought to distance themselves from the environmental mayhem. Most notable of these were actions by Green Century Funds who actively went after companies that used or produced palm oil, to "stop cutting down forests." The fund went as far as waving their cumulative clout of half a trillion dollars to warn specific palm oil producers of the consequences should those producers be found guilty of forest destruction.
By the end of 2014, good news abounded about zero deforestation commitments . One article declared that rainforests were rejoicing because these commitments meant that "75 percent of all the palm oil produced will be grown without cutting down rainforests." Yet another article gushed over their estimate that "96% of global palm oil trade [was] now covered by zero-deforestation sources."
So what the heck happened in Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries that produce over 80% of the world's palm oil? Who was responsible for the loss of millions of hectares of forests?
There is a BIG difference between a commitment made recently and the palm oil in the market today.
What we see in the cookies on supermarket shelves right now most likely came from places where pristine rainforests were destroyed in order to grow palm oil. At best, we could say that maybe 10% of the palm oil we consume today are deforestation free as these are certified under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
2015 the Year to Save Forests?
We cannot be lulled into complacency by commitments. A recent report by the BBC found that research by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology gave the mammals of Borneo a "poor outlook" in terms of survival unless there is a shift in how things are done.
Another report issued by the Environmental Investigations Agency of the United Kingdom criticized these zero deforestation commitments, calling them an "exercise in wishful thinking."
The commitments are good in that for the first time, we're seeing brands like Unilever and Hershey get together with their palm oil suppliers to talk about removing deforestation from their products. The world's biggest palm oil trader, Wilmar International, has gone from being named as "the worst company in the world for transparency" by Newsweek in 2012, to one that was applauded last month for opening up the whole company's activities to scrutiny. Even with this level of transparency, removing deforestation completely from its suppliers will be a challenge especially when it comes to supplier plantations not directly under its control or the small farmers in its supply chain.
Kinder Cookies at Sainsbury's but not Girl Scout Cookies
Where you can find kinder cookies that contain palm oil today, is at Sainsbury's UK which now boasts of some four hundred products that use Certified Sustainable Palm Oil with certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil(RSPO) The particular quality of certified palm oil used by Sainsbury's is certified under the RSPO's "Segregated Model" which in simple terms, means that it came from fully certified production operations where forests of High Conservation Value are preserved.
In comparison to Sainsbury's, the people who make Girl Scout cookies have not taken this much needed step to remove the possibility of their usage of conflict palm oil. Kellogg's, the breakfast cereal company which owns Little Brownie Bakers, has a schedule to end 2015 with a "global commitment to work with palm oil suppliers to source fully traceable palm oil, produced in a manner that's environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable."
It's another great sounding commitment except for the wiggle room Kellogg's allowed themselves with the condition "economically viable." Certified palm oil, like other certified organic food products are more expensive and will never be "economically viable" as long as profits drive a company's mandate on sustainability.
ABC Bakers which makes Girl Scout cookies as well repeats the same conditions before it will use Certified Segregated palm oil: "We will continue to work with our suppliers to increase our use of sustainable palm oil with a goal to get to 100% segregated sustainable palm oil when it becomes logistically and financially feasible."
This is a real shame because if ever there was a cookie to feel good about, it would have been Girl Scout cookies. The revenue from their sales does so much good in our own society and for our youth. If you find yourself in a dilemma when the girls come knocking on your door to sell these cookies, do what a friend of mine in Seattle did. Give the Girl Scouts the money to support them, but don't take the cookies.