This is my second dispatch from a junket sponsored by the Dole Food Company touring their banana and pineapple plantations and facilities in Costa Rica. The company has gathered a group of “key leaders in sustainability” for the trip to show them various sustainability projects involved in growing, packing, and shipping fresh pineapples and bananas. In my first dispatch, I described what our happy band of sustainability companeros saw. This next dispatch completes our journey in search of sustainability in which we visit a subsidized rainforest and one of the world’s biggest refrigerated container ships, the Dole Chile.
Sustainability and biotechnology
One of the topics that kept coming up during our discussions was genetic modification of crops. (OK, it probably kept coming up because I kept bringing it up.) Over dinner after our visit to Dole’s nifty New Millennium Packing Plant, I had the good fortune to sit beside Miguel Munoz, Dole's leading researcher on bananas. Munoz has a Ph.D. in biotechnology from Cornell University where he studied biotech methods to improve rice. He came back to Costa Rica where there is no work on biotech rice and started working for Dole as a researcher. He now oversees Dole’s collection of nearly 300 different varieties of bananas and works on research trying to overcome the two largest problems facing producers of bananas, nematodes, and black sigatoka fungus.
Nematodes voraciously chow down on the roots of bananas depriving them of nutrients. Black sigatoka is a fungal disease that can reduce yields by up to 50 percent. These infestations are controlled by the application of nematicides and fungicides respectively. Remember that bananas are infertile triploid clones—they all have the same genetic makeup. Most plants are diploid, that is, they have two complementary sets of chromosomes obtained from each parent. Bananas hail from southeast Asia where two varieties, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana, mis-crossbred so that they got three sets of chromosomes which produced sterile varieties that reproduce only by means of spreading suckers. This genetic peculiarity means that crossbreeding for resistance is not a strategy that banana producers can adopt.
Biotechnology could overcome this problem. For instance, biotech researchers recently reported that installing a gene from tomatoes significantly boosts banana resistance [PDF] to black sigatoka. Munoz is very well aware of the disease resistance benefits that biotech could bring to banana production. “But the company will not use it until the market is ready,” said Munoz. This is in keeping with Dole’s policy of not telling its consumers (especially Europeans) that they are scientific ignoramuses. The customer is always right, even when they are very wrong.
On the other hand, since biotechnology is foreclosed, Munoz and his team have been looking at other ways to boost banana production. One really fascinating technique involves creating what Munoz calls a “consortium” of bacteria and fungi which are used to inoculate bananas before they are planted. So far this consortium encourages root growth and even supplies some nitrogen fertilizer to treated plants. The root growth is so vigorous that even the nematodes can’t eat them all. Early results suggest that this inoculation can boost production by as much as 10 percent.
Munoz is also researching another way to control nematodes using a banana variety from the Congo called Yangamby. Yangamby actually seems to kill nematodes wherever it is planted. Unfortunately, its fruits are not suitable for commercialization. Munoz suggested that growers could plant Yangamby as part of a rotation on farms cleaning the soil of nematodes over a period of years. The cost effectiveness of this procedure has not been worked out yet because it would take 10 to 15 years and part of commercial production would have to be sacrificed.
In the morning, Munoz brought a selection of various bananas from Dole’s collection for the group to sample. One variety has a chewy texture with a citrus finish; another variety tastes very like an apple, and baby bananas have a concentrated sweetness. For the most part, these varieties can’t be commercialized in international trade since they bruise easily and have relatively low yields.
Among the life cycle analysts
Over cocktails, I got to talk with several of my fellow travelers who are actual practitioners of the dark arts of sustainability. One of the more popular methods in the sustainability consultancy toolbox is life cycle analysis (LCA). One definition of LCA is “a systematic set of procedures for compiling and examining the inputs and outputs of materials and energy and the associated environmental impacts directly attributable to the functioning of a product or service system throughout its life cycle.” To start with, LCA professionals obviously have to compile an inventory of relevant inputs and outputs. And that’s the problem.
Erik Svanes from the Norwegian consultancy Ostfold Research is involved in conducting an LCA for Dole’s banana production. I asked Svanes how one knows when all the relevant inputs and outputs have been included? He agreed that the “border problem,” that is, determining where to draw the border around an analysis of any given product or service, is very tricky. Svanes noted that there are no consistent standards for doing LCA, so it’s really impossible to compare LCA’s between companies. For example, one currently popular form of LCA is determining how much carbon dioxide per unit of product a company emits, the so-called carbon footprint. Without a set of consistent standards, Svanes explained, there is no way to really compare Dole’s carbon footprinting of bananas versus Chiquita’s. Nevertheless, Svanes argued that LCA is still useful. Svanes’ view can be summed up that while LCA is not perfect, it can arrive at a ballpark estimate of the environmental impacts of various production activities.
The next morning over breakfast, still perplexed by life cycle analysis, I asked Svanes, “How many people does it take to make a pencil?” Reason readers will recognize the reference to Leonard Read’s brilliant 1958 essay, “I, Pencil.” Svanes looked confused for a moment and then gamely hazarded a guess of maybe two or three people. Pablo Paster from TreeHugger immediately cited the Toaster Project by British artist Thomas Thwaites. Thwaites is trying to build a toaster completely from scratch including mining and smelting the ores he needs. But of course, Thwaites can’t really do this. For example, he tried using hair dryers and leaf blowers to smelt iron. Who made the hair dryers and leaf blowers? So he decided to use a domestic microwave oven. Now Thwaites acknowledges, “Though I really did naively set out with the intention of only using pre-industrial tools and methods, I soon realised that a) it was impossible, and b) by taking things like trains, or using wikipedia, or even not making my own shoes for walking to a mine, I was already in a sense ‘cheating’.” Note: Impossible.
So I tried to briefly explain to Svanes and others over breakfast that it takes literally millions of people coordinated through markets to produce a pencil. Read’s example is someone picked the coffee in Brazil, shipped to Oregon, roasted it, bagged it, made the coffee pot in which it was brewed, served it to the logger who cut the cedar with saws consisting of metals smelted in Pittsburgh, and so on ad infinitum.
LCA may be useful to companies in identifying points in their manufacturing and logistics procedures where they might increase efficiency or lower costs.
An additional goal of LCA seems to be identifying external costs that activities impose on third parties. With regard to that I suggested to Svanes and others that if emitting carbon dioxide is a problem, then the way to handle it is to put a price on it, perhaps a carbon tax on the minehead or well. That way the most efficient system for conducting complete life cycle analyses ever invented—markets—would coordinate all of the vastly dispersed knowledge that it takes to make a product and find the most efficient low carbon way to do it. Markets have no “border problems.” LCA is a top-down kludgy attempt to mimic the ways that unimpeded markets so well marshal and act on information. To his credit, Svanes more or less agreed with me that if there were a price on carbon, there would be no need for carbon footprinting studies since the external costs imposed by carbon dioxide emissions would largely be taken into account.