A lot of adult environmentalists have been trying for years to focus attention on tropical rain forests in southeast Asia, but it took two teenagers to get the issue on the front page of a national newspaper and on the network news.
Four years ago, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva started studying orangutans for a Girl Scouts project. What they learned inspired them to start a campaign to raise awareness of the damage that palm plantations are causing the great apes.
"I liked them at first because they are such a cute animal," says Rhiannon, 15. "But they are also helpless. Their rain forest, their home, is being cleared for these palm oil plantations and they have no say in it."
In two decades, companies have cut down millions of acres of rain forest 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, rhinoceroses and orangutans.
The girls decided to stop eating food with palm oil in it. That's when they started looking at ingredient lists and learned that Girl Scout cookies are part of the problem.
"It was Girl Scout cookie season," says Madison, 16. "And so we checked the ingredients and palm oil was an ingredient in Girl Scout cookies. I remember being so shocked and upset."
Girl Scout cookies have lots of company. Palm oil is in baked goods, margarine candy and all kinds of packaged food. It became ubiquitous in U.S. supermarkets a few years ago, when companies were looking for alternatives to hydrogenated oils that contain trans-fat. That's not to say palm oil is a health food — it's full of saturated fat, a risk factor for heart disease. But it's cheap. In many countries it has become the staple cooking oil.
Making The Sale To Change Oils
Rhiannon and Madison have their work cut out for them. For years they have been holding information sessions at their school, recruiting other scouts to their cause, working with environmental groups and talking to lots of media. Their online petition to get palm oil out of Girl Scout cookies has 67,000 signatures.
Finally, a few weeks ago, they got a sit-down meeting with leaders of Girl Scouts of the United States of America. The girls shared their research and urged the leaders to take palm oil out of Girl Scout cookies.
"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," Madison says. "I think those pictures really resonated with me as a young kid but also today."
The girls were frustrated to hear that palm oil will stay in the cookies.
Amanda Hamaker, who manages cookie sales for the organization, told them it's too late to change the recipe for next year's cookies.
"I mean, the cookie boxes have been printed," Hamaker says.
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 says she won't do anything to jeopardize cookie sales because scouts need the money for camp, trips and charity projects.
But because of Rhiannon and Madison's dedication, she'll investigate changing future batches.
"We're definitely researching palm oil and we're going to continue to keep contact with the girls," Hamaker says.
Pushback From The Palm Industry
The girls aren't giving up, and there's no question their campaign has resonated. In fact, they have even drawn attention across the globe in Southeast Asia.
The top officials overseeing palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia recently visited Washington, D.C., to improve the image of palm oil, and they disputed the girls' positions. Malaysian Plantation Minister Bernard Dompok said his country protects orangutans and has pledged to keep half its land forested.
"We have enough laws in the country to prevent all this," he said. "I think it's time, perhaps, that some of these little girls get better informed on these things."
Indonesia Agriculture Minister Suswono added that his country set up a conservation area for orangutans a few years ago and just announced a moratorium on converting primary forests to palm plantations.
Conservation groups say these policies still allow harmful destruction of rain forests but do indicate that Malaysia and Indonesia are being compelled to adopt more sustainable practices.
And the food industry is feeling the pressure, too.
For example, Kellogg's says for every ton of oil it uses around the globe, it will subsidize sustainable palm oil by purchasing something called a GreenPalm certificate. The company owns the biggest baker of Girl Scout cookies, Little Brownie Bakers.
Kellogg's says when an affordable source of sustainable palm oil becomes available, the company will buy it.
Environmentalists who have worked on the issue for years are impressed with Rhiannon and Madison's dedication and effectiveness.
"I think things will change, but I think they'll change because of this pressure," says Doug Boucher, a tropical forests expert for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "I'm one of those grown-ups that hasn't been as successful as they have."