A couple of months ago, an invitation from a public relations firm dropped into my email to participate in an “invitation-only tour” of Dole Food Company pineapple and banana plantations in Costa Rica that would bring together "key leaders in sustainability.” I was eager to go on the all expenses paid junket for two reasons: (1) I have long been puzzled by what is meant by “sustainability” and (2) I used to work for the Tico Times many years ago and have a great affection for Costa Rica. What follows are dispatches from the tour.
Day 1: Arrive in San Jose
We happy band of junketeers gathered for cocktails and dinner at the Hotel Intercontinental to meet with various Dole officials and PR handlers. It turns out that a lot of the “key leaders in sustainability” are relatively young and highly energetic sustainability entrepreneurs. I would get to know many of them better as we toured the countryside, but to give a flavor of my traveling comparneros, let me introduce a few. One of the first I met was Martin Smith, son of an Episcopal priest and woman with a Ph.D. in religious studies from Harvard. Smith had also been to Costa Rica at age 11 at the famous Quaker school in Monteverde. He dropped out of the University of Chicago to found StartingBloc, a program that “blends social and economic value creation” in the training of social and environmental entrepreneurs. He later returned to Chicago to get his degree in economics. He is now the founder of JustMeans, a news service that enables corporations to better disseminate their “corporate social responsibility” messages.
Next was Lindsey Moore, who had worked with JustMeans, but had joined the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and is headed to Azerbaijan for her first overseas posting. There was also Jennifer Boynton, editor in chief of Triple Pundit, is a new-media company for the business community that cultivates awareness and understanding of the triple bottom line. The mantra for the triple bottom line is “people, planet, profit.” Over dinner Boynton said that she was puzzled that a libertarian was on the trip. Why? Because “libertarians are not noted for their interest in sustainability.” I would later enjoy many fascinating conversations with fellow junketeer Pablo Paster, a Treehugger columnist and principal environmental consultant of the environmental management software company Hara, as well as carbon life cycle analyst Erik Svanes from Ostfold Research, and Tobias Bandel from the composting consultancy Soil and More.
At the cocktail hour, I fell into conversation with Rudy Amador, who would be our always affable and extremely knowledge sustainability tour guide. Amador is an agricultural economist who is the director of quality, environmental and food safety affairs at Dole in Latin America.
The ice breaks a bit when I told him that for my first midlife crisis (35 years old) I quit Forbes magazine to come work for the Tico Times in Costa Rica in 1990-1991. We got to talking about growing bananas immediately. I mentioned that I had noticed in the pre-tour literature the difference in production per hectare of Dole’s conventional pineapples versus its organic pineapples—2.8 million boxes conventionally grown from 770 hectares versus 300,000 organic boxes from 300 hectares. This would imply a differential production of 3,600 boxes per hectare versus 1,000 boxes per hectare.
Amador replied that the calculation was too steep, that changes in production, land left fallow, and other factors needed to be taken into account. The real difference is that organic pineapples are smaller and about 25 percent less productive per hectare than conventional pineapples. We got to talking about banana production—Costa Rica is the second largest producer of bananas in the world after Ecuador. Dole also produces organic bananas, and the market for them seems to be growing.
Amador, however, pointed out that if people are trying to avoid pesticides when they purchase bananas, there is essentially no difference between organic and conventionally grown bananas when they are tested in the laboratory. Why? Because pesticides are applied to the outsides of bananas which are removed before eating; pesticide residues simply do not get inside the edible parts. Amador would later make it clear that Dole has no intention of questioning the desires of their customers no matter how scientifically unjustified. In other words: There’s no profit in telling your customers that they are stupid.
In any case, Amador said that he’s not an either/or person when comes to organic versus conventionally grown pineapples and bananas. In fact, he asserted that growers have improved conventional production using knowledge that they gained from organic production.
I knew that bananas did not produce from seed; they are all clones, but didn’t know much else about the life cycle of that crop. Bananas grow from rhizomes and the way farmers used to expand production is by cutting the root structure into quarters and planting them. It takes about nine months for a plant to fruit. This method of production led to the spread of nematodes which are one of the biggest banes of banana production requiring treatments three times per year to beat them back.
Amador was clearly excited about showing the group Dole’s laboratory and nursery where new varieties are being developed. Amador explained that farmers find some plants produce better than others and select them for expansion and replanting. “So researchers are looking for adventitious mutations in the field?,” I asked. “That’s right,” replied Amador. This provoked me to muse on the puzzling fact that people, who fear biotechnology, seem happy to accept “natural” random genetic mutations, but are afraid of carefully chosen genes added by biotechnologists to improve crops.
At dinner, I had the good fortune to sit by Elizabeth Losos, the president and CEO of the Organization for Tropical Studies, a global academic network involving researchers from more than 60 universities who are engaged in the study of tropical ecosystems. Based at Duke University, Losos had just spent six months working Costa Rica where the Center operates its longest running research stations, including La Selva and the palm collection in San Vito. We got to talking recent research at La Selva where scientists have been measuring growth of six plant species for more than 30 years. This is the longest running data series of its type.
The research was set up for other purposes, but now can be used to probe the recent effects of climate change on tropical forests. Losos explained that the research has shown that when the years are warmer forest growth is reduced by 40 percent below the average. Warm years also correlate with lower rainfall, so it’s hard to disentangle the two effects, but the concern is that effect of higher temperatures may offset the fertilization effect of extra carbon dioxide. This means that the models that project a buffering effect on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are too optimistic—that CO2 will accumulate faster than projected and increase temperature commensurately faster. Still, the research is in early days.
Day 2: “If you see plastic, it's organic.”
The posse of “stakeholders” that Dole has assembled for this junket hop on the bus early in the morning to visit Dole’s pineapple plantation at Muelle and its banana plantation at Rio Frio. Costa Rican roads are still quite exciting—narrow paths winding down the precipitous slopes of volcanoes free of hindrances like guard rails.