I, Pineapple

Reason's science correspondent files a second dispatch from his sustainability tour in Costa Rica.

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. 

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  • Spoonman.||

    These have been interesting articles.

    Also, I hope you gave the engineer a high-five for his "29 seamen" comment.

  • ||

    Is there some sort of quota that requires a minimum number of mentions of "reefer" in Reason articles?

    8-)

  • Virginia||

    Fascinating. Thank you, Ron.

    Any mention of parasitic nematodes to eat the ones killing the banana trees?

    He worked out a composting program using local manure and tea harvest detritus to amend the soil. The result was 40 percent better water retention and a 25 percent boost to productivity.

    Just Dole's luck! The US has a comparative advantage in bullshit we could send back in that refrigerated cargo hold.

  • Matt Felch||

    These articles have been fantastic. I never realized how interested I was in this subject before.

  • Observer||

    Fun read.

  • ||

    Good job, Ron, but did you have at least one Imperial?

  • ||

    OP: Two.

  • H man||

    "If sustainability is about using resources more efficiently, then it’s not at all objectionable."

    This what drives me nuts about the CO2 crowd. Burning stuff is expensive. People and companies want to save money. The reduction in man made CO2 is going to happen as people save money by being more efficient.

  • Doc S.||

    Per capita per product yea, but as a whole it will still be increasing as consumption rates increase and population increases.

    Also, as long as energy is relatively cheap (which it is compared to salaries) the incentive to spend the money researching ways to improve your production processes and if necessary invest the capital to realize some of the efficiency potentials is relatively low. Hence the effectiveness of pricing GHG emissions or something of the like

  • sevo||

    "Also, as long as energy is relatively cheap (which it is compared to salaries)"

    Outside of really primitive economies, I'm pretty sure this will always be the case.
    After all, salaries are a reflection of caloric inputs minus the 'wastage' of people doing things other than working.
    Adam Tooze, "Wages of Destruction", shows this graphically in a closed economic system when the Nazis quite literally traded the accumulated body fat of the population diverting the potato crop to fuel the jets at the end of WWII.

  • Virginia||

    he illustrated the problem by pouring water through a filter containing soil from the plantations where it simply ran out. He then took soil from the field margins and did the same thing and the water was absorbed. The difference was the organic matter in the soils.

    Salatin's always talking about this in his farming books. Sounds like a universal problem. Can the biotech sector build a better dirt, i.e. organic matter that doesn't burn from the 'cides and fertilizer.

  • ||

    Can the biotech sector build a better dirt, i.e. organic matter that doesn't burn from the 'cides and fertilizer.

    Wouldn't the trick be using something non-organic, like rockwool?

  • Skr||

    Using rockwool is probably best kept in the realm of hydroponics. I think it would be very expensive on an industrial scale. The simplest way to improve soil is to just add as much organic matter as possible as often as possible.

  • Skr||

    The solution is to add organic matter. What is happening is the fertilizer is feeding microorganisms that decompose the organic which frees up nutrients for the plants. It doesn't matter whether the nitrogen comes from an organic or inorganic source, it will speed the decomposition of organic matter. The difference is that when you use an organic fertilizer like manure, it comes with lots of undecomposed organic matter with it. This means that you won't deplete the soil as quickly because you're adding a little back. Sources like blood meal otoh will function much like ammonium sulfate and eat through organic matter. (should specifically say Carboniferous matter)
    There are ways to deal with that depletion. One way is mulching or you could turn user cover crops. You can also adopt a no-till practice with annuals where the tops are harvested and the large root mass is left In the ground. Roots are carboniferous

  • Joshua||

    I saw the first picture and wondered why they weren't growing clover in between the banana trees.

  • Skr||

    Virginia, you want the organic matter to break down to feed the plants. It's just a matter of replacig what has been taken to maintain tilth.

  • ||

    Virginia: Possibly - I don't have the link handy but The New Scientist had recent article on biotech research efforts to create grains that produce their own nitrogen fertilizer the way that legumes do. Of course current pest resistant biotech crops already require less synthetic pesticides.

  • Virginia||

    It's behind a subscription wall:
    http://www.newscientist.com/ar.....ilise.html

  • Skr||

    While turning plants legumous would be so super awesome I can hardly contain myself over the prospect, I don't know if it's a silver bullet for organic matter depletion. No till and mulching with the grain chaff would certainly help tremendously, but so too would doing those things and adding inorganic fertilizer to kickstart the decomposition of the Carboniferous material.
    But seriously cereal crops that fix nitrogen from the air justifies damn near any harm from GMOs IMHO.

  • Doc S.||

    I see why you didn't address any of my LCA pondering yesterday. Didn't mean to steal your thunder.

    However, I would disagree with not being able to compare chiquita vs dole. As you said how you define your system limits is a huge portion of framing your LCA (border problem as you called it). Although doing a direct comparison between every facet of both producers would be difficult, you could definitely do comparisons between similar processes in dole and chiquia. For example, the agricultural processes, the harvesting, cleaning, packaging, shipping etc, and the impacts associated with the matter and energy used in each of those processes on a per pineapple/calorie/hectare yielded basis (your functional unit) would be an accurate comparison.
    By setting your system boundaries to only encompass parts of production and defining your scope properly you could certainly compare Chiquita vs dole. Moreover if you used a hybrid LCA you could incorporate EIO data to help close some of the data gaps.

    As always, data certainty is huge in LCA and compiling your inventory, but I don't think that the data would be that difficult to get for at least the agg-transport stages.

    Also, for not having a background in the topic you explained it well. Great read.

  • Doc S.||

    PS I teach an introductory and advanced LCA course if you have any questions or want some good references I would be happy to provide them.

  • ||

    Doc S. Please send the references to me (email above) at your convenience and thanks in advance.

  • Doc S.||

    "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."

    Two main issues with this:
    This type of LCA already exists, it is known as economic input-output LCA. CMU has an accessible tool online at eiolca.net that you can actually see the impacts of a certain dollar amount spent in one of the NAICS sectors and the inputs from all sectors needed to produce the goods for that dollar amount. This then gives you the resulting energy and emissions use.

    While the method is sound the issue is two fold. due to the complexity of the NAICS data it takes a while to update the industry data so that your model will always be about 5 years old. I think the latest data is from the 2007 NAICS info. The second is the high level of aggregation in the data, for example the NAICS sectors consider 1 dollar spent at a ski resort to have the same emissions of 1 dollar spent at an arcade.

    The other issue i have is that you've presented LCA to only be useful as a tool for assessing GHG emissions. Where in reality carbon footprinting and ghg's are just a small part of LCA, there are a number of other impact categories that are associated with LCA, which vary depending on the scope of the project and impact assessment method used, such as human health, ecotoxicity, eutrophication potential etc... So saying putting a price on CO2 would eliminate the need for LCA is short sighted.

  • Doc S.||

    Oops you said no need for CF not LCA as a whole, I rescind my last sentence. Although as you've presented it, it seems you believe they are one and the same.

  • sevo||

    "Two main issues with this:
    This type of LCA already exists, it is known as economic input-output LCA"
    No, it doesn't.

  • Doc S.||

    k

  • mofo||

    "Remember that bananas are infertile triploid clones"

    Uhm, duh!

  • Robert||

    Am I the only one who on seeing the sign 1st thought it was on a plant where they make chili con carne? And I just ate, too!

  • Robert||

    research trying to overcome the two largest problems facing producers of bananas, nematodes, and black sigatoka fungus.


    And what problems are those, and how do they affect prod'n of bananas, nematodes, and that fungus?

    Doesn't anybody but me use colons or dashes?

  • skr||

    The nematodes are parasitic and they feed on the roots. I'm going to guess they are like root knot nematodes where they create a gall and inhibit the transport of water and nutrients to the top ofthe plant. It has been my experience the nematodes are a big problem in unhealthy soil. Oyster mushroom mycellia actually is a good way to combat bad nematodes, as are other nematodes that eat the parasitic ones. The fungus, simply put, attacks the green parts of the plant and the plant needs those parts for photosynthesis. Combine the two and your crop is screwed from both ends.

  • Joshua||

    Robert was being a grammar nazi. The way Ron structured that sentence makes it appear that the producers are producing bananas, nematodes, and fungus.

  • skr||

    lol
    i see now

  • Corey||

    Where can I get my hands on some of those alternate bananas? I bet whole foods would jump at the chance to sell those apple-tasting bananas at $15 a pound. I sense a business opportunity!

  • ||

    Corey: I am told that you can find them at farmers markets here in Costa Rica.

  • Corey||

    I'm sure that within months, I'd be funneling suitcases of cash to kleptocratic dictators. That's just life in the banana business.

  • sevo||

    Re: the biotech 'fix' for the fungus:
    "This is in keeping with Dole’s policy of not telling its consumers (especially Europeans) that they are scientific ignoramuses."
    This obviously adds to Dole's costs and is reflected to some degree in their pricing.
    What's somewhat surprising is that a competitor isn't exploiting the ignorance of Dole's (presumed) customers and offering bio-tech bananas at a lower price to those who chose not to wear tin-foil beanies.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Not buying Dole stock.

  • ||

    What do Bananas and Greenpeace have in common?
    They both reproduce by "Spreading Suckers"

  • air max||

    is good

  • Air Jordan Ol School||

    That's cool!

  • قبلة الوداع||

    thank u

  • قبلة الوداع||

    thank u

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