By Lisa Algee

This article is part of a four-part series on biodiversity consisting of the following articles:

  1. Biodiversity
  2. Deforestation
  3. Palm Oil (this article)
  4. Conservation

Each has been taken from the Mongabay main site and adapted to meet 3rd grade educational standards. Ideally, they are to be read in the above order.

Also note that we provide remedial-reading versions for each of the four articles. These versions are designed to meet 3rd grade science standards, but 2nd grade reading standards.

What is palm oil?

As you walk through a grocery store with your family, do you ever wonder what all the delicious snacks are made of? Next time you ask mom to buy you a KitKat bar, take a look at the back of the package. See what it’s made of. You may be surprised to find that many of the things you eat or use every day contain palm oil.

Label with palm oil listed as ingredient.

Where does palm oil come from?

Palm oil comes from a tree called the oil palm tree. This tree grows in humid climates. Rainforests are hot, humid and get a lot of rain. Rainforests have the perfect conditions for growing oil palm trees.

The trees grow a large red fruit called “red palm oil” or “oil palm fruit”. It can be made into a lot of oil. This oil is used in many different things; some you can eat, some you clean with, some you wear as make up, and more.

Oil palm fresh fruit bunch.
An oil palm fruit.

Beyond having many uses, one oil palm tree can produce a large amount of oil. The oil palm tree is among the plants that make the most oil humans can use. One acre of land (which is almost the size of a football field) planted with palm oil trees can produce almost 7 tons of oil. That’s enough to fill over 5,000 water bottles with palm oil!

Oil palm fruit cut in half.
Close up on an oil palm fruit cut in half.

Lots of oil comes from each tree. Being able to make a lot of oil from one tree means that anyone planting these trees can sell a large amount of oil from just a few trees.

Why use palm oil?

More and more every day palm oil is being used to make common things you find in your house. It is often used in food because it holds together well. For example, it keeps chocolate from melting at regular room temperature. The same goes for some margarines and cookies.

Frequently it is used to make soaps. Palm oil can be broken down to make dish-washing soap, shampoos, makeup and toothpaste.

Palm oil can even be used in biofuels to run cars or buses.

Using plant oils is more popular than using animal fats. Researchers say one big reason this is happening is people want to eat healthier things. Before, it was common to find animal fat such as butter or lard in things you ate every day. Animal fat is less healthy than many vegetable oils and sometimes animals must be killed to make it. Now, more people want vegetable oil instead of animal fat. So more people want a product like palm oil.

Why care?

While it seems like using palm oil in everyday products is a good thing, the large amount humans use is having an impact on the places where palm oil is grown. Palm oil plantations, the places where palm oil is grown, are sometimes fields that were already used to make food. But often rainforests are cleared to create more palm oil plantations.

The picture below is a rainforest.

This used to be a rainforest. Now it is bare ground.

Deforestation for oil palm. The rainforest has been cut down and will be replaced by oil palm trees.

Soon it will be a palm oil plantation. Nothing else will grow on this land when it is a palm oil plantation.

What do you think happened to the animals that used to live in the forest?

What do you think happened to the plants that used to grow in the forest?


abundance (n.)A very large quantity of something.
algae (n.)A simple non-flowering plant that lacks roots, leaves and stems.
bacteria (n.)Small one-cell organisms; some can cause disease but not all.
British Isles (n.)A group of islands off the northwestern coast of Europe including Britain, Ireland and other small islands.
climate (n.)The general weather conditions of an area or region including rain, sunshine, wind, temperature, air pressure and cloudiness.
equator (n.)An imaginary line drawn around the Earth equally distant from both poles, dividing the Earth into northern and southern hemispheres.
flourish (v.)Grow or develop in a healthy way.
fungus (n.)Organisms such as mushrooms, yeast and molds that feed on organic material.
Madagascar (n.)An island nation off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean.
photosynthesis (n.)The process by which green plants and some other organisms use sunlight to make foods from carbon dioxide and water. Photosynthesis in plants generally makes oxygen.
propagate (v.)Breed a plant or animal by a natural process.
species (n.)A group of individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding.
rainforest (n.)Usually a tropical forest with dense evergreen growth and high yearly rainfall.
terrarium (n.)A sealed glass container for plants and smaller land animals, especially reptiles, amphibians, or terrestrial invertebrates, typically in the form of a glass-fronted case.
tropical (adj.)Typical of the tropics, an area north and south of the equator with usually hot and humid weather.

Comprehension questions

1. Which sentence from the section, “Where does palm oil come from?” explains how much oil can be made from oil palm trees?

a) Palm oil comes from a tree called the oil palm tree.

b) Lots of oil comes from each tree.

c) One acre of land (which is about the size of a football field) can produce 7 tons of oil.

2. Which sentence is not a reason for using palm oil?

a) Palm oil is used because it holds together well.

b) It prevents the ingredients in toothpaste or shampoo from separating.

c) Palm oil comes from a tree called the oil palm tree.

d) Many researchers tell us that eating vegetable oils is better for our health than eating animal fats.

3. Which of the following options best explains the main idea of the entire article?

a) Lots of palm oil comes from one tree.

b) Vegetable oil is healthier than animal fat.

c) Palm oil is a product grown on rainforest land and is being used in many things.

d) Palm oil plantations can be grown anywhere in the world.

4. What do you think happens to animals when a rainforest is cut down for a plantation?


Next Generation Science Standards

  • 3-LS4-3 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity
  • Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.
  • 3-LS4-4 Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity
  • Make a claim about the merit of a solution to a problem caused when the environment changes and the types of plants and animals that live there may change.

Common Core State Standards: English Language Arts

  • Key Ideas and Details
    Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
    Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.
  • Craft and Structure:
    Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 3 topic or subject area.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).

  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity
    By the end of the year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge

Common Core State Standards: Mathematics

  • Represent and interpret data

Banner image by lyzadanger –

Modified from Rhett Butler’s article and Pek Shibao’s article.

Credit: All content created by Lisa Algee. You can contact Lisa at algeelisa[at]