STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now let's go to the big business of palm oil.

Environmentalists have turning their attention in recent years to tropical rain forests in Southeast Asia, where vast areas are being cut down to make way for palm oil plantations. This oil is a common ingredient in many of the foods we eat. It's often used as a substitute for trans fats, which nobody wants to eat anymore.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has the story of some young environmentalists here in the United States who are trying to focus attention on this issue. They've started by targeted palm oil use in Girl Scout cookies.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva are passionate about orangutans. Four years ago, the Michigan girls started studying them for a Girl Scout project.

Mr. RHIANNON TOMTISHEN (Girl Scout): I liked them at first because they are such a cute animal, but they are also helpless. Their rainforest, their home is being cleared for these palm oil plantations, and they have no say in it.

SHOGREN: In two decades, companies have cut down millions of acres of rainforest to plant palm trees and meet the skyrocketing demand for oil and biofuel. This releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases and shrinks habitat for rare animals like tigers, elephants and rhinos. The girls decided to do whatever they could to tell others about orangutans' plight. Their first step was to stop eating food with palm oil in it. Madison says that's when learned something that horrified them.

Ms. MADISON VORVA (Girl Scout): It was Girl Scout cookie season. And we checked the ingredients, and palm oil was an ingredient in the Girl Scout cookies. And I remember just being so shocked and upset.

SHOGREN: Palm oil became ubiquitous in U.S. supermarkets a few years ago. Companies put it in baked goods, margarine and candy as an alternative to hydrogenated oils that contain trans fat. That's not to say palm oil is health food. It's full of saturated fat, but it's cheap. In many places in the world, it has become the staple cooking oil.

The girls worked with environmental groups, gathered signatures and talked to lots of reporters. Finally, a few weeks ago, they got a sit-down meeting with Girl Scout leaders. Madison says they made an impassioned plea to take palm oil out of Girl Scout cookies.

Ms. VORVA: I kind of teared up during the meeting, because I care about this so much. We showed them pictures of orangutans killed for the palm oil industry. And I think those pictures, you know, really resonated with me as a young kid, but also today.

Ms. AMANDA HAMAKER (Manager of Cookie Sales, Girl Scouts): Girl Scouts of the USA cares deeply about the environment, so, you know, of course it was of concern.

SHOGREN: Amanda Hamaker manages cookie sales for the organization. She says her bakers tell her they need palm oil to make the cookies taste great and resist crumbling and spoiling. And so far, there is no affordable source of sustainable palm oil. Hamaker told Madison and Rhiannon that it's too late to change the recipe for next year's cookies

Ms. HAMAKER: I mean, the cookie boxes have been printed.

SHOGREN: Hamaker says she won't do anything to jeopardize cookie sales because scouts need the money for camp, trips and charity projects. But because of the Madison and Rhiannon's dedication, she'll consider changing future batches.

Ms. HAMAKER: We're definitely researching palm oil, and we're going to continue to keep contact with the girls.

SHOGREN: And Rhiannon and Madison's campaign has drawn attention all the way in Southeast Asia. During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., Malaysia Plantation Minister Bernard Dompok said stories about destruction of the rain forest and orangutans are misleading.

Mr. BERNARD DOMPOK (Malaysia Plantation Minister): We have enough laws in the country to prevent all this.

SHOGREN: For instance, Dompok says Malaysia has pledged to keep half of its land forested.

Mr. DOMPOK: I think it's time, perhaps, that some of these little girls get better informed on these things.

SUSWONO (Agriculture Minister, Indonesia): (foreign language spoken)

SHOGREN: Indonesia Agriculture Minister Suswono added that his country set up a conservation area for orangutans a few years ago, and it just announced a moratorium on converting primary forests to palm plantations.

Conservation groups say these policies still allow harmful destruction of rainforests, but they do indicate progress. And there are other signs that sustainable palm oil is starting to pick up momentum. For example, Kellogg's announced for every ton of oil it uses around the globe, it will subsidize sustainable palm oil. The company owns the biggest baker of Girl Scout cookies. Kellogg's says when an affordable source of sustainable palm oil becomes available, the company will buy it.

Doug Boucher is a tropical forest expert for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He gives Madison and Rhiannon a lot of credit.

Mr. DOUG BOUCHER (Union of Concerned Scientists): I'm one of those grownups that hasn't been as successful as they have.

SHOGREN: Boucher predicts Girl Scout cookies soon will become rainforest-friendly, because two teenagers wanted to save orangutans.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.