Palm oil is a vegetable oil which is found in 75% of our weekly shop; from bread to shampoo. It is a natural ingredient, which is cheap and quick to grow, so understandably companies love the stuff! However it is having an absolutely detrimental effect on the environment. The palm tree from which the oil is produced was originally found in Africa but companies discovered it also grows very well in Asia’s rainforests. Therefore, in Indonesia in particular, the huge growth in demand for palm oil is now one of the main causes of deforestation. Huge areas of forest are cut or burnt down to be replaced with row upon row of the palm tree, destroying areas rich biodiversity.
Therefore this industry is exactly what Monkeying Around, my year 6 conservation club, have been learning about for the last couple of weeks.
Firstly we talked about what palm oil was. So we looked it up and found out all about the oils history and where it came from. Once they were clued up on the basics I gave them a challenge! I had brought in lots of items that children might see in their weekly shop: bread, shampoo, biscuits, soap, chocolate etc. I then asked the children to try and sort the objects into two piles; items that they think that contain palm oil and items that they think don’t contain palm oil. This activity has a varied result with every group of children using it, but these children divided the items quite clearly to say that the more cosmetic items did contain palm oil, whereas the food did not. How shocked they were when I revealed that every single item contained palm oil!
Next we began to look at the damaging environmental effects of palm oil. I explained to them the nature of the rich biodiversity of rainforests; full of numerous animal and plant species, and then what might happen when you remove this range of plant species and replace it with one repeated over and over. They quickly understood that this would mean that not as many animals would be able to survive in that area. We focussed on Orang-utans in particular, looking at how they rely on the forest to survive.
To reinforce the idea of how deforestation effects the wildlife in a rainforest, I used an activity shown to me by a very knowledgeable education officer from Monkey World, Rebecca Short (http://whobrokewho.wordpress.com/).
First we laid out a large bed sheet on the ground, representing a rainforest. I then picked 5 children to be orang-utans and stand somewhere on the rainforest (sheet), nicely spread out. Next I picked some children to be loggers and asked them to stand around the edge of the rainforest. Finally I asked the remaining children to tell me some of the things that they found out had palm oil in, each time they said an item, the loggers folded in a bit of a sheet to represent planting the palm trees to make that product. The area of the sheet soon began to get small, with my 5 orang-utans getting closer and closer together. They started saying things like “but I don’t have room to move”, “I’m going to have to step off of the rainforest”, “we can’t all fit in this tiny space”. Suddenly the children were very quiet, it was very clear that a fun game had turned into a realisation of what was really happening to wildlife out in Indonesia.
So naturally, the children wanted to help!
The Rainforest Foundation UK have designed a fantastic database, ‘Appetite for Destruction’, which has different product categories such as biscuits, bread, chocolate, hair care and makeup. These categories then list companies that produce them in a traffic light system: Green for companies who use no or transparently sustainable palm oil, Red for companies who use great amounts of non-sustainable palm oil and orange for everywhere in-between. I asked the children to have a look at the database to see if they can spot companies who always seem to find themselves in the red sections of each category. The children very quickly spotted Asda as being a repeat offender.
I quickly explained to them that this does not require them to stop shopping at Asda altogether… as I could just imagine the complaints from parents when their children tell them they have to change all their shopping habits! Instead I suggested that we write to the CEO, Mr Andy Clarke, explaining why we are worried about Asda’s use of palm oil and whether they have any plans to switch to more sustainable ingredients.
Liking this idea the children went away and wrote some fantastic letters (luckily they had been studying persuasive writing the week before!), which I have now sent away to the Asda head office. Fingers crossed we get a response!
When it comes to palm oil I always explain that it is impossible to expect people to completely change their weekly shop to not include palm oil, shopping would take hours! Although it is easy to just swap one or two things you would normally get to a similar product which doesn’t use palm oil. The Rainforest Foundation UK’s database makes this even easier to do; just swap a red to a green, or even an orange is better!
If you do chose to swap an item, like the children, why not write a letter to the company explaining why you have stopped buying their product? Companies will not stop using a product unless they know consumers are unhappy about it!
After all, the customer is always right!
Here is the link the Rainforest Foundation UK’s palm oil product database:
As always, please feel free to use these lesson/ activity ideas for yourself. But if you do, please let me know how it goes! Feedback is always greatly appreciated. 🙂