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

Celebrate cookies and science

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?

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

25 comments

  1. Our neighborhood has a bunch of girl scouts and the neighborhood facebook page announces when the cookies are available. We all make our orders and the scouts deliver them.
    Personally, I like that organic food is labeled so that I can avoid that. The chemicals and toxins allowed for organic products are way more dangerous than those on GMOs. I support GM products.

  2. Got my first boxes of Girl Scout cookies today since I can order them from my niece in Memphis and yet they get shipped straight to me from the factory. Love supporting her troop from afar! I found it interesting that Thin Mints have the same recipe as they always have but are no longer made on the same line as some of the cookies containing whey so they can be marketed as vegan.

  3. I wasn’t a Girl Scout because they met after public school got out, and my Catholic school ran later. But I always liked the idea of their projects and events. Anyway–I’m also pleased to see they are looking at the issues and coming to the best answers. Way to model critical thinking!

  4. Signed your petition and will gain weight yet again as I will be getting the mint and the chocolate/coconut.

  5. And let’s not forget that Bt corn (one of the more common targets of anti-GMO complaining) produces a pesticide that, were it obtained via any other method, would be considered organic by the USDA definition.

  6. Only Biofortified would attempt to promote GMOs by linking them to Girl Scout cookies and by using this sort of logic: “Can’t we agree that tiger habitat and child slavery are slightly more important than being GMO-free?” I hope you can see the faulty reasoning there.
    I was a girl scout, and the Lord knows I’ve eaten my fair share of Girl Scout cookies. But knowing now what I didn’t know then: that hydrogenated palm and cottonseed oils, and lots of refined sugars, are detrimental to one’s health in a number of ways – I wouldn’t eat them or let my kids eat them. I’d love to see the Girl Scouts selling something healthy.
    Many people’s family income is directly or indirectly dependent upon the biotech industry’s success. And nowadays everybody has a voice in the blogosphere. it seems wrong to use America’s love and support of its Girl Scouts to promote, or for that matter, to denigrate GMOs. I’m eager to see the public become educated in the actual science, so they can sort the good from the bad when it comes to employing various biotech products. Let’s continue to support women in science and let’s continue to support industry-independent basic science education for boys and girls in public schools. And let’s step away from this partisan promotion of individual interests.

  7. OgreMkV – USDA Organic was developed to try to promote more sustainable farming practices – especially with regard to soil conservation. But its popularity has attracted big ag – and now it’s hard to know whether or not you’re contributing to environmental problems or not when you buy certain organic products. The internet is a great place to start to find local producers of both organic and conventional food products. From there you can learn more about the practices employed on those farms and whether or not they’re ideologically aligned with the agricultural paradigm you support. Organic food has fewer numbers and amounts of pesticides. It also has less antibiotic resistant bacteria – a growing health problem.
    Pesticide exposure is a growing concern in children’s health. The American Academy of Pediatrics supports policies that promote integrated pest management. IPM has traditionally meant: using pesticides of any kind as a last resort method, and limiting their use in every way possible.
    http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/6/e1757.full
    Many independent organic farmers remain true to the spirit of organic, but I believe it’s a bit more difficult to sort that out. I wish you well in your quest for healthy eating.

  8. Yes, the public could become more educated in science, and public school would be a great place to start. Yes, tying of partisan issues to Americana is not cool. However, notice that I am not telling GS to do anything. I’m simply thanking them for the stances that they have already espoused.
    By my sentence “Can’t we agree that tiger habitat and child slavery are slightly more important than being GMO-free?” I mean this – we all have limited time available for extracurricular activities and interests. What is more important for us to spend our limited bandwidth on? That’s not faulty reasoning, that’s realism.
    The anti GMO position is effectively focusing on a non-issue. For traits currently on the market – there’s no human health difference and there’s no environmental difference. For me, the pro science position is that we should look at the science and not just knee jerk and say no to every new technology that comes along. Biotech in all its various incarnations as well as other technologies like irradiation, GPS integrated tractors, bioplastics, etc will be the key to making farming and food more environmentally friendly, if we let it. That’s why I spend my precious free time promoting that pro science position – the future. Right now, though, the GMO debate is really much ado about nothing.
    On the other hand, there certainly is a difference, a real, tangible difference, when we are talking about slavery-free chocolate vs conventional chocolate or sustainable palm oil vs conventional palm oil.
    Those 37,000+ people who signed the anti GMO petition mentioned in this post, and all the other people who have signed other non-GMO petitions or who go to marches or who leave tons of long comments on any news article or blog post that is about GMOs who have boycotted GMOs in various fashions, in all their slactivistic glory, are choosing GMOs as the issue that they spend their limited time on. So no, it’s not faulty reasoning. It’s a challenge. What is important enough to you to spend your time on?

  9. The lemon ones for me. And dammit, we’re gonna need GMO citrus soon, so to keep me in cookies we gotta have smart Girl Scouts.

  10. Hi Mary, There is G.E. research going on in response to greening and psylids. I don’t know just how advanced it is. IFAS publications may help you, if curious. There may be a g.e. ringspot resistant papaya available in Fl. soon as they surveyed growers about and I have heard of testing in Homestead. Because I am isolated geographically [as well as socially] I have delusions of the vector having a hard time finding my few citrus trees. So, am buying more. In the mean time that isolation concerns me as the scouts may not find my palacial estate. And because of Mlema’s posts I feel motivated. So, will actually search for the girls and because of the absolute perfection of your usual comments and my intense fear of Anastasia will try 2 boxes of the Lemon ones….But I must continue to strongly recommend …….Chocolate..MMM

  11. “For traits currently on the market – there’s no human health difference and there’s no environmental difference.”
    I think those claims are part of the current debate. And I absolutely agree that we should look at the science and not just knee jerk and say yes or no to every new technology that comes along.
    “Biotech in all its various incarnations as well as other technologies like irradiation, GPS integrated tractors, bioplastics, etc will be the key to making farming and food more environmentally friendly, if we let it.”
    That’s what the blogosphere is about: sharing our opinions. There are plenty of people who look at these same issues and end up developing opinions that diverge from your own. Some are scientists just like you. The biotech industry is obviously very interested in people’s opinions, and the sort of slactivistic anti-GMO activism you’ve described is the reason the industry continues to seek a greater presence in social media, through any number of types of websites. You have every right to promote/defend GMOs in conjunction with Girl Scout cookies.
    In response to your question “What is important enough to you to spend your time on?”
    I would say: public health. And since environmental issues tie into public health, I find those important too. Hence my comments on the relatively unhealthy ingredients in Girl Scout cookies. And my skepticism regarding the environmental benefits of GE commodity crops as they continue to be developed.
    I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to just drop the issue of GMOs. It’s about food, and of course that’s probably at the top of the list for important things for many people. But I share your desire for science to lead the way forward.
    Regarding: “Can’t we agree that tiger habitat and child slavery are slightly more important than being GMO-free?”
    Here’s how I see this kind of rhetorical question:
    My tap water has atrazine in it, along with a number of other contaminants. It’s municipal water. You might ask me: Can’t we agree that people in Africa who have no water at all to drink, and no food to eat either, is slightly more important than you having atrazine-free tap water?
    It would be hard to disagree, but I still don’t want atrazine in my tap water.
    But to further clarify, I’m not really concerned about GMOs in Girl Scout cookies. Again, there are more serious health concerns with the cookies, if GMOs are even a concern in the cookies at all. And the problems with wildlife habitat and child slavery are very complex. So, yes: it’s good that the Girl Scouts are sourcing renewable ingredients from slavery -free economies. But frankly, I would expect that from any food producer at this point in time, and it’s one reason I try to buy USDA organic and avoid palm oil altogether.
    Chocolate’s difficult. I grabbed this quickly and can’t say I’ve really looked into the issue too much, since I don’t eat much chocolate. But if consumers are concerned about slave-free chocolate, they’ll need to check into the issue. Most of US chocolate is apparently from a few companies that aren’t necessarily sourcing their ingredients as carefully as the Girl Scouts are.
    http://grist.org/food/a-guide-to-ethical-chocolate/
    Weirdly, the article references GMOs as if they’re bad too. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason to the way people approach these issues sometimes.
    Biofortified is asking us to thank the Girl Scouts “for choosing a science-based stance about GMOs”. So, show me that the Girl Scouts made the decision to include GMO ingredients in order to follow “a science-based stance”. This whole petition war is rather petty. I agree that the GMO ingredients in Girl Scout cookies are unlikely to pose any health risks that the non-GMO equivalents wouldn’t also pose. But petitions don’t educate. This is a public relations ploy. We have ignorance on one side and industry advocacy on the other. I’ll continue to look for the unadulterated science in these matters. If anyone starts a petition for Girl Scout cookies to be made from a healthier recipe, let me know.

  12. No, you got it backwards. The decision was not to cave in to the pressure to exclude G.E. sources. Not a decision to seek such sources. I really do not care if g.e. ingredients are in their or not. And I am trying not to be an industry advocate, but reading your posts has me leaning in that direction due to irritation.

  13. What a beautifully written article. You are awesome!! And I am thrilled that the Girl Scouts are now offering Gluten Free Cookies. I can’t wait to try them.

  14. For an anti-GMO person, however, you can’t go ahead and make the assumption that they accept the scientific consensus. Sure, if you accept the consensus then focusing on the ills of GMOs is rather odd. But if you actually believe that they cause damage then I’m not sure things are quite so clear cut at all.
    Also that particular line of logic cuts both ways. Both child slavery and tiger habitat are, in my opinion, more important in the grand scheme of things than rejection, or acceptance, of GMOs – but, with that in mind, I’ve spent countless hours involved in the GMO debate over the past decade, as I’m sure have you. I don’t know that I’ve spent even one one hundredth of this time active in the field of conserving tiger habitat or preventing child slavery (or any number of other causes more worthwhile, but less personally interesting)

  15. Eric, I’m sorry I irritated you. I think my own comments are often motivated by irritation, but their goal is never to irritate others. I found the original petition Dr. Bodnar talked about – the one to not use GMO ingredients in Girl Scout cookies. I agree that it’s erroneous in it’s claims about GMO ingredients. I agree that the choices the Girl Scouts made to use ethically-sourced ingredients is a more important one. But I think that Biofortified’s “counter-petition” does nothing to dispel the misinformation of the original, and instead creates a sort of squaring-off between those who want GMO ingredients and those who don’t. So, I agree with Dr. Bodnar that arguing over the GMO ingredients is a waste of time, but even more so: it instigates partisanship on the issue, instead of better education and understanding. That’s all. And again, I’m sorry I irritated you. I don’t care about the GMO ingredients either, but I get irritated that they’re used to either spread pseudoscience or claims about science-based stances. But the reason I won’t eat Girl Scout cookies is they’re unhealthy. I choose instead to make donations rather than purchase cookies. It’s really a shame that the Girl Scouts have been dragged into this sort of internet battle. I suspect that most cookie-purchasers won’t give the battle a second thought. In the end, tradition is probably the biggest motivator in selling and buying these cookies, which I remember as being quite delicious. Kudos to the Girl Scouts for moving forward in improving their product’s ethical value.

  16. Thanks Mlema, I appreciate your reply. I have not bought the cookies in years as well. Due mainly to a tendency to grow sideways instead of upwards. I have an old linebacker mentality and when I see pushing I do not like. My first reaction is to fire right in there and push back. So, although I am easy to irritate I calm down quickly and actually apologized to at least 3 folks in the last decade. The Nature Conservancy and some companies have also been attacked similarly recently. So, pushing little kids got on my nerves quickly. Glad to see that you support with your donations. Thanks again.

  17. Thanks! I knew you would be happy about that! and if you have any vegan friends, as Janice mentions above Thin Mints are vegan (always have been but now they are made on a separate production line, if I understand things correctly)

  18. I too wish the cookies were a bit healthier. I mean, they’re cookies… they aren’t supposed to be a health food. But wow the calories and fat per serving are a bit high on some of the varieties.
    As cookie monster says, cookies are a sometimes food.

    On a more serious note, I do hope that my friendly counter petition and this blog post help to counter misinformation. That’s the goal here. If someone googles “Girl Scout cookies GMOs” maybe they’ll stumble here and be exposed to the science a bit. If I had just a teeny bit more time I’d volunteer with local scout groups and help come up with science activities for the girls. I certainly plan to do that when my 8 month old is a little older; perhaps when she is 2. Science education in the US is abysmal for so many kids – and that is a problem that goes well beyond GMOs as shown in that recent survey of AAAS scientists vs the public done by Pew.

  19. My shrink says I have a mild case of Estrophobia. She says that men with mild symptoms actually have increased life expectancy, and that dealing with more educated women can amplify the symptoms. [One of you will have to show me how to put the smiley face here.]

  20. Thank you Anastasia for your reply to Mlema. I have often appreciated Mlema for being civil and grounding her comments in evidence. Although he/she sometimes slips into spin and condescenion, for the most part, I find Mlema’s information and arguments to be well informed and thoughtful, generally eliciting quality exchanges with others. But Mlema was out of line with that accusation. This is not an issue that began with Biofortified attempting to exploit the good name of the girl scouts to promote gmo’s. At what point did Biofortified contact the girl scouts and say, “Hey, when you guys are out selling cookies, would you please also say that GMO’s are great.” This began as groups attempting to coopt the iconic status of girl scout cookies to promote an anti-gmo conformity, actually using the girls themselves to disseminate their message, and utilizing social media and pressures to paint the girl scouts as compromising their customer’s health because they did not automatically cave in to a political correctness. That was crass and insensitive. Sure, you can say that the original appeal to the girl scouts was an innocent request that the girl scouts consider alternative sources for their cookies by folks genuinely concerned about safety. But lets be real, it was a calculated political act to exploit the girl scouts.
    I signed the petition. No, I didn’t sign thinking that this way, we can get the girl scouts to actively promote gmos. I saw it as a way to say I appreciate the sensible stance they took to base their decision on the weight of the evidence from reputable sources even though it would be easier for them to have caved. The girl scouts are not the audience for this post, you are simply calling our attention to the difficult position the girl scouts were placed in by those who attempted to exploit them and asking us to consider letting the girl scout organization know that at least some people appreciate their sensible response.

  21. Anastasia, Found girl scouts, bought 2 boxes of the mint. As I ate an entire box on the way home my fear of you receded. However, I forgot the lemon ones and now tremble at the word Mary. Will return for more. All horrible humor aside. I appreciate you letting us know about this. I have seen zero local coverage of this issue. Thanks.

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