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.
"Sustainability means sustaining your business by cutting costs and making profits."
Another practitioner of life cycle analysis is Tobias Bandel from the Netherlands-based consultancy Soil & More. During the junket, I saw Bandel scoop hands full of soil several times to sniff and crumble. Bandel worked for years in Egypt helping farmers there develop European markets for their organic produce. Lately he has been doing a water footprinting analysis for Dole's bananas and pineapples. When I expressed skepticism about the concept of sustainability, Bandel flatly said, "At the end of the day, sustainability means sustaining your business by cutting costs and making profits." Later he told me, "If a project doesn't make a profit in five years, it's not sustainable."
Bandel suggested that sustainability implies a longer term vision, looking further ahead than the next quarter. As an example of this longer term thinking, Bandel argued that declining soil fertility is a looming issue for the agricultural companies for which he consults. Fertile soil erodes quickly and rebuilding it takes decades, so companies need to take a longer view on using technologies like composting. He gave an example of tea growers in Kenya who had so depleted their soils that production had plunged 30 percent. Tobias said that 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. 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.
Day 3: Jungle and port
So the companeros were loaded onto the bus for a trip to a project being managed by local non-governmental organization (NGO), Fundación para el Desarrollo de la Cordillera Volcánica Central (FUNDECOR), which is working to preserve rainforests in the northeastern part of Costa Rica using market-based mechanisms. Dole plantations enclose good-sized chunks of rainforests and FUNDECOR has worked with the company to monitor the biodiversity of these forests.
FUNDECOR also works with local farmers and ranchers to preserve their bits of rainforest. The chief tool is a program set up by the Costa Rican government to pay farmers and ranchers for ecosystem services. We sustainability seekers were taken to a local ranch where the owner is receiving such payments. One thing about rainforests, they are muddy and hot. The group walked perhaps a mile through pasture to a site inside of the patch of rainforest where FUNDECOR researchers had placed an infrared camera to capture images of local fauna. In this case, we were treated to computer images of a weasel captured on camera in this particular forest.
Under the ecosystem services payment program, farmers get paid $200 per hectare per year for five years to reforest and $64 per hectare per year for five years not to cut their forests down. The program is paid by a 3.5 cent carbon tax on gasoline and diesel. Market-based? Hmmm. Still the payments are better than just prohibiting landowners from developing their land. The FUNDECOR representative (whose name I failed to note) explained to the sweaty stakeholder group standing in pasture that this particular farmer had been allowed to cut five very carefully selected trees per hectare from the forest, earning him about $500 per tree. Dole thinks that publicizing its involvement with FUNDECOR's efforts to protect rainforests will help its relationships with retailers abroad, especially in Europe.
Muddied and drenched in sweat, our band of sustainabiltarians piles back onto the bus for a trip to Dole's shipping facilities at the Port of Moin on the Caribbean coast. Security is tight at facilities and at the port. The Dole facilities are BASC certified for security, a designation awarded by the Business Alliance for Secure Commerce, an international program involving private business and customs agencies. BASC certification aims to prevent smuggling and contamination of cargo. For instance, each container is weighed and if the weight doesn't match the manifest, it's inspected.
The Dole facilities handle about 2,000 refrigerated containers per week. The main sustainability issue for shipping fresh fruit is the energy used to distribute it, including trucking to the port, shipping abroad, then trucking to retailers. Since it's fresh, the fruit needs to be refrigerated until it gets into the fruit aisles at your local grocery. Refrigeration involves the emission of greenhouse gases including the carbon from fossil fuels and leaking refrigerants. Ben Matthews, Dole's director of equipment operations at Moin, made a presentation showing how Dole is cutting back on both.
One initiative is the "green" container program in which Dole contracted with shipping container manufacturers to produce much more energy efficient refrigerated containers. The result is that Dole has dramatically reduced the amount of electricity it needs to keep its fruit cold, reducing electricity consumption by 40 percent between 2005 and 2011. Matthews calls this the "sweet spot" where environmental benefits and lower production costs meet.
Refrigerant leaks also contribute to global warming since refrigerants actually have much higher global warming potentials than carbon dioxide. Traditionally, if a container was low on refrigerant, operators simply topped it off and didn't worry too much about small leaks. Now Dole has instituted a program of extra vigilance to carefully measure and recycle all refrigerants. I pressed Matthews on the program's costs, and he reluctantly acknowledged that it cost several hundreds of thousand dollars more than it saved. Matthews repeated Dole's consistent message that such efforts could be justified because they made the company more attractive to their customers.
Since various refrigerants have higher or lower global warming potentials, it might initially seem to make sense that one should choose the refrigerant with the lower potential. Not so fast, said Matthews. He noted that containers using R404a refrigerant that has a greater potential for warming the planet than does conventional R134a refrigerant. However, since R404a is much more efficient in cooling, this cuts the emissions of carbon dioxide emitted from burning fuel making it more climate-friendly than R134a.
Next we junketeers hopped on the bus to go see Dole's loading facilities and the docks at the port. I confess to being mesmerized watching the operation of the gigantic machinery and seeing the orderly efficiency of the container port. The highlight for me was a tour of the Dole Chile refrigerated container ship, known in the trade as a reefer. The Dole Chile plies a route between Central America and Wilmington, Delaware, carrying 1,000 40-foot containers of fresh fruit to East Coast markets. It arrives in Costa Rica on Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and is completely unloaded and reloaded in twenty-four hours so that it can leave Moin by 6 a.m. on Monday morning.
After being sniffed by German shepherds to see if we carried any drugs, we ascended the gangway. At the top of the gangway we were relieved of our passports and patted down by a crew member. Now I enjoy touring the bridge of a ship as much as the next guy, but I really got a kick out of the tour of the engine room. Chief engineer Jitendra Mahambare was clearly proud of the power that his ship could generate as it drives itself across the ocean. At full speed the 26,000 horsepower engine burns 100 tons of fuel oil per day. The containers are kept cool using electricity supplied by five 16-megawatt generators. Mahambare toured us up and down and all around the three deck engine room.
Over Cokes in the lounge later, one of the junketeers asked about the dangers of storms and accidents at sea. Mahambare acknowledged that accidents do happen and sometimes ships are lost. He then incautiously added, "Nobody cares if a ship with 29 seamen goes down, but if a bit of oil that washes ashore harms one seagull, then that's news." Some of the junketeers looked slightly uncomfortable.
After repeating the security theater including further sniffing by dogs to see if we'd smuggled anything off the ship, we sustainability companeros sank into our bus seats for the trip back to hot showers in San Jose.
Day 4: What is sustainability?
In the worst case, the concept of unsustainability is deployed as an ideological bludgeon against any activity of which its wielders disapprove. In the best case, as Bandel summed it up on the last morning, "If economic sustainability is not there, then a business is not sustainable." If sustainability is about using resources more efficiently, then it's not at all objectionable. And if sustainability also involves trying to account for externalities, establishing a price on them through property rights and markets is far more effective than engaging in life cycle analysis rituals. If, on the other hand, sustainability is about favoring some technologies and procedures using criteria other than efficiency, then it's hard to avoid the conclusion that it amounts to little more than an attempt to smuggle in certain political views and ethics by other means.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.
Disclosure: I am grateful to the Dole Food Company for paying my travel expenses for this trip. The company did not ask for nor does it have any editorial control over my reporting of this trip.