Celebrate cookies and science

posted in: Food | 25

Scouting was a very important part of my childhood. I learned independence, teamwork, and so many other important life traits. Not to mention the camping, singing, crafts… and cookies! Selling cookies was one of the highlights of each year. Thanks in large part to my grandmother who worked in a hospital and my aunt who worked in a law firm, one year I was one of the top 25 cookie sellers in the whole United States!

My dad is archiving our family photos and he was able to find these for me…

I was a Girl Scout from Daisy all the way to Cadette, and my mom was a troop leader for many of those years. Now that I have a baby daughter, I look forward to her joining Girl Scouts and to being a troop leader myself. I’m especially excited about the science and engineering badges that they have added since I was a scout. They even have an inventor track, in partnership with the US Patent and Trademark Office: the Intellectual Property Patch (check out the materials; they even talk about plant patents).

You may be thinking – what blog is this? Where’s the science? Where’s the biotech? There’s a connection, I swear!

scouts petition
Click the image to go to the petition.
(Base image by Nordic Lass via Flickr, edited under CC license.)

You may have seen a video by a cute little Girl Scout asking you to sign a petition that claims GMOs are dangerous, and that asks Girl Scouts to make non-GMO cookies. As of the date that this post was published, over 37,000  people have signed that petition. So far, the Girl Scouts have chosen to follow the science. I’ve started a petition to show scouts that many scientists and science-friendly people support their decision: Celebrate cookies and science.

I think it’s great when Girl Scouts, or any girls for that matter, speak up for things they believe in. But it’s unfortunate when the claims are not based on sound science. As the Girl Scouts website states: “It is important to note that there is worldwide scientific support for the safety of currently commercialized ingredients derived from genetically modified agricultural crops… In addition, in the future, GMOs may offer a way to help feed an ever-increasing world population.”

There are a handful of peer-reviewed journal articles that have found problems, to be sure. But it’s also true that many such papers have had questionable methods.

The grand majority of research shows no difference for health or safety between genetically engineered and non genetically engineered crops. What about independent, long-term studies? Check out A Survey of Long Term GM Food Studies and see our Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas. The consensus on the safety of genetic engineering is quite strong, as shown by Pew’s recent survey of “a representative sample of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science”: 88% of scientists said genetically engineered foods are safe to eat.

Demanding that the Girl Scouts remove conventionally produced ingredients from the cookies would mean they would be even more expensive than they are now. They wouldn’t be any healthier, as there is no difference in safety or healthiness between genetically engineered and non genetically engineered foods on the market. All of them have been thoroughly evaluated by the FDA for safety. And sugar and oil don’t have any DNA or protein in them, anyway!

Still, consumer choice is important. Is there a shortage of non-GMO labeled cookies? Not by a long shot.

Girl Scout Cookies - Thin Mints & Samoas - by Brianpdx via flickr
Girl Scout Cookies – Thin Mints & Samoas – by Brianpdx via flickr

According to the website of the largest 3rd party non-GMO certification company, “We currently have over 20,000 Non-GMO Project Verified products from 2,200 brands, representing well over $7 Billion in annual sales.” There are also many other companies that certify their products as non-GMO but that don’t pay for the Non-GMO Project label. On top of that, remember that organic certified foods can not be grown from genetically engineered seeds. While there is some overlap between organic and non-GMO labeled foods, there’s expected to be $35 billion of organic food sales in the US in 2014.

In other words, if you want non-GMO cookies, you can easily find them.

Now, instead of faulting Girl Scouts for not catering to a niche market, I’d really like to emphasize is that there are other ingredients in Girl Scout cookies that could be far more concerning than GMOs. And here is where the values of the Girl Scouts really shine through.

Palm oil is used in a lot of shelf-stable baked goods but may be contributing to deforestation and habitat loss for endangered animals such as tigers. Girl Scouts are helping push palm oil production toward sustainability by sourcing palm oil exclusively from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Even more importantly, chocolate has a lot of ethical concerns, with slave labor and human trafficking sadly too common. This is a huge issue that most people know nothing about. The Girl Scouts “are committed to using our powerful voice and brand wherever possible to affect change in this area.” The “cocoa sourced for Girl Scout Cookies is child- and slave-labor free”. Further, their “bakers are also working with third-party organizations focused on creating a sustainable marketplace that rewards cocoa farmers who prohibit unethical practices.”

Temptation by Jesse Michael Nix via Flickr.
Temptation by Jesse Michael Nix via Flickr.

Can’t we agree that tiger habitat and child slavery are slightly more important than being GMO-free? We should celebrate Girl Scouts for being a leader and producing an ethical product, not boycotting them over what is effectively an non-issue.

Now I am hungry for (sustainable, child slavery-free) cookies! What is your favorite?

I love them all, and it’s fun to try the new ones, but Thin Mints and Samoas are the best! It’s great that the cookies are available online now in some areas, and I appreciate that online sales teaches a new skill, but I like the old school work that’s needed to set up and run a stand. I’ll be on the lookout for a local troop. Will you?

Follow Anastasia Bodnar:
Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!