13-year-old from Moose Jaw petitions Girl Guides of Canada to stop using palm oil in cookies

·5 min read
Girl Guides cookies contain the controversially discussed palm oil, which can be found in many of our daily products. (Submitted by Girl Guides of Canada - image credit)
Girl Guides cookies contain the controversially discussed palm oil, which can be found in many of our daily products. (Submitted by Girl Guides of Canada - image credit)

Palm oil is in many of our daily products, including Girl Guides cookies, and one Saskatchewan teenager says that's not ok.

Palm oil is widely used around the world from shampoos to food, but it can be harmful to the environment, according to Ophelia Bourdages, a Girl Guide from Moose Jaw.

That's why she started a petition asking Girl Guides of Canada to stop using the oil in its cookies.

"This isn't something that Girl Guides should be supporting," said the 13-year-old.

"Part of the Girl Guides ... promise is to protect our environment and take action for a better world."

LISTEN | 13-year-old girl creates palm oil petition:

Bourdages first learned about the harmful effects of palm oil when she was about ten years old, she said.

"I hated it and thought it was horrible," said Bourdages.

"The biggest problem with palm oil is that it is completely destroying environments that host 15 per cent of the world's biodiversity."

She says the damage to the land is "irreversible."

"We need to stop it now."

The creation of large-scale oil palm plantations has resulted in deforestation in some areas of the world, for example Malaysia and Indonesia, according to Guelph food science professor Alejandro Marangoni.

"Little by little, we've been going into these natural habitats and basically obliterating habitats for animals, as well as cutting down the trees, which have tremendous influence on greenhouse gas production and global warming," Marangoni said in 2020.

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Bourdages eventually found out through her mother that palm oil was also in Girl Guides cookies, she said.

So far, the girl from Moose Jaw has received almost 29,000 signatures for her online petition.

"I honestly did not expect this kind of reaction to my petition," said Bourdages.

"It's pretty surprising."

In an email to CBC, Girl Guides of Canada said the organization "is proud of Ophelia for pursuing an issue she is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about."

"By asking questions and being an engaged citizen, she is an excellent role model for girls raising their voices and advocating for a better future."

The Saskatchewan teenager said she didn't receive a response when she first reached out to Girl Guides CEO Jill Zelmanovits, so Bourdages decided to start petitioning.

Girl Guides of Canada told CBC that Bourdages sent them a letter in late March 2020 and that the organization responded via a mailed letter in May 2020.

Bourdages' mother Teri Bourdages said the family never received that letter.

Since Ophelia first reached out to Girl Guides of Canada about palm oil, the teenager has sent more emails to the organization, said the 13-year-old.

The organization's CEO responded with an email in late Oct. 2021.

Sustainable palm oil

Bourdages received an email from Girl Guides CEO Jill Zelmanovits at the end of October in which the organization told the 13-year-old that it works closely with its cookie manufacturer Dare as well as the fat and oil suppliers for the Girl Guides cookies, which the company says are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

"Reformulating our recipe to ensure there is no impact on product integrity is a complex process and something we are continuing to explore," wrote Zelmanovits in the email.

Bourdages, however, doubts that it is possible to grow and farm the oil sustainably. She wants Girl Guides to stop using the product in their cookies altogether.

"This is just a thing to make people feel better about eating palm oil," said Bourdages.

According to Bourdages, human right issues like exploitation of workers as well as child labour seem to remain a problem in the palm oil supply chains.

Palm oil is a very popular product because it is an efficient crop which requires less land than other oil crops to grow, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the WWF.

"I will personally make sure that our Cookie Team is made aware of your letter and passes along your petition and letter of concern to our partners at Dare," said Zelmanovits in her email.

"We are committed to keeping the pressure on Dare to meet their 100 per cent sustainable palm oil plan by 2025."

On their website, RSPO says one of its most important criteria is that "no primary forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity... can be cleared."

Some environmental organizations – such as the IUCN — are saying the rules of the sustainable palm oil industry aren't strict enough.

Responding to a critical report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, the RSPO said in 2019 that it was "committed to continuous improvement and self-reflection."

As an alternative to palm oil, Bourdages recommends looking into canola oil, especially since canola is being farmed in Canada.

A passion project for the 13-year-old

Bourdages is already looking ahead to her next steps in her goal of educating people about the effects of palm oil

For example she will sit down with Mondelez — the company behind Oreo cookies — to talk about palm oil in their cookies, thanks to the help of her teacher who set up the interview, said Bourdages.

"I'm getting lots of support from people and it's awesome," she said.

In addition she and her family try to reduce products with palm oil as much as possible.

"It is impossible to completely not use palm oil," she said.

"Hopefully that will be something in the future that will be possible."

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