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"If It's Plastic, It's Organic"

Reason's science correspondent goes on a junket to Costa Rica in search of sustainability.

Ronald Bailey
June 14, 2011

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.

doleNext 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.

blue pineapple flowersAfter three hours we arrive at the Muelle pineapple plantation in the relatively flat north part of the country near the border with Nicaragua. The plantation covers nearly 2,000 hectares (about 5,000 acres). Associated with it is Dole's organic pineapple plantation, Ecopinas, which is about 300 hectares (750 acres). I rather stupidly did not know that pineapples are a bromeliad. Just take a close look and it is immediately apparent that that is so. The variety grown by Dole and most of the rest of the industry is called Mayan Gold and produces beautiful blue flowers.

At Muelle, farm manager Henry Quiros explains how pineapples are grown, from soil preparation to harvest it takes 70 weeks for the first crop and if they choose to produce a second from the same plants it’s an additional 54 weeks. Pineapples are not produced from seeds, but from planting slips, essentially suckers harvested from mature plants. In order to get a uniform crop, the plants in the field are dosed with a form of ethylene in order to induce simultaneous flowering. A big issue in the wet tropics is drainage and soil erosion.

plastic organicConventional pineapples are grown using herbicides and pesticides, but organic ones must use other methods to control weeds and pests. To control weeds, the organic pineapple plants are grown in fields entirely covered with gigantic sheets of black plastic. As one NGO stakeholder later quipped when we were out in the field, “If you see plastic, it’s organic.” The notion that plastic is approved by the organic standards czars seems mildly ironic. In addition, flamethrowers using “natural” gas (and yes, the word “natural” was stressed) are used to control weeds on the margins of organic fields. Amador noted that plastic and flaming are very expensive in comparison to conventional methods. Enough plastic to cover a hectare costs $2,000. In comparison producers can expect to get revenues of about $5,000 per hectare from conventional pineapples. After harvest, the plastic is recovered and burned as fuel for a cement kiln.

Organic pest control is also complicated and expensive. The moist tropics have no winter, so pest pressure is nearly constant. Quiros explained that they can only use natural controls, which include mixtures of limonene oil (derived from pine resin), hot pepper, garlic, mustard, and bitter plants. “We have tested hundreds of things. It’s really hard to find enough product to make natural control possible,” said Quiros. In addition, Dole farm managers have planted neem trees on the border to the organic fields. Neem trees apparently exude substances that repel some pests. Quiros did note that they had no data showing good effects from the trees, but “we are hoping those exudations work.” At best, according to Quiros, organic pineapple production is about 70 percent of conventional production and can be as low as 30 to 40 percent of conventional production. On the other hand, pineapples are very susceptible to cold, and the black plastic can boost production by keeping the plants warm during a cold snap and its helps with water retention.

Using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in organic agriculture is of course forbidden. So the company applies blood meal, fish meal, or feather meal as fertilizer. The company does produce and deploy compost, but the compost contains less than one percent nitrogen. Quiros explained that the natural fertilizers available to the company do not provide “enough nitrogen to finish the plant cycle.” One result is that organic fields produce 4,000 boxes of fruit per hectare versus 6,000 boxes from conventional fields.

Quiros also noted that the market in organic pineapples that Dole had been trying to build essentially collapsed during the recent global financial crisis. As a consequence, many of the small independent growers who had converted to organic went bankrupt and Dole itself lost a lot of money. “People won’t pay 40 to 50 percent more just because it’s organic,” said Quiros. Nevertheless, Quiros explained, “The ideal is someday to farm chemical-free. We want to be there when an alternative becomes practical.” However, he added, “We know that synthetic chemicals are going to be here for a long time.”

With regard to organic pineapples, one wonders just what is “sustainable” about adopting crop production methods that are more expensive, produce a third less crop, use lots more land, and are much more labor intensive? Many times during the tour the point was hammered that Dole is making an economic bet that it can sell organic products at a higher premium. So why should they fight their customers, however ill-informed they may be?

In any case, water use is a big issue in sustainability circles, so Dole was happy to show off a new fruit washing technique that involves reusing the water. We were taken on a tour of the updated packing plant. Both the conventional and organic pineapples are washed in water containing about 100 parts per million chlorine. A couple of times, the guides assured the stakeholder junketeers that the water contained no chemicals. The new water recycling system has cut water use from 18 million liters per year to 3 million and saves the company money. In this case, the new technique is actually less expensive. Using less water at lower cost, everyone can agree that that’s sustainability.

delicious organic pineappleAs it happened while we were visiting the plant, the workers were packing Dole’s organic pineapples. A quality control worker extracted one taken from the field just a half hour before and macheted slices for us to taste. My verdict: Organic pineapple fresh from the field tastes divine. It was the best pineapple I have ever put in my mouth. (I later got sample conventional fruit from the field and it tasted much the same—freshness is the key.) Amador explained that as soon as pineapple is harvested its flavor begins to decline. That’s why it is cooled over four hours to 7 degrees centigrade which is the temperature at which it is kept while being trucked to the port and on board Dole’s refrigerated ships.

At the plant, the system of labeling that keeps track of each pallet of fruit from the farm to the customer was outlined. I asked Amador if it had ever been used as part of a recall. In just one case, when inspectors in Europe detected slightly elevated levels of zinc sulfate in some pineapples that had come from an independent grower associated with Dole. The fruit would have passed U.S. standards. The company traced the issue to fertilizers from China. Now the company samples all fertilizer shipments.

The Cattle Fly Conundrum

Pineapples produce a lot of tough leaves and stems that must be dealt with before new planting can take place. Traditionally, the harvested plants were sprayed with the herbicide paraquat and left to dry in the fields. Once it was dry, the leave and stalks were burned in the field. To make a long story short, the European Union banned paraquat as a possible danger to farm workers. Dole’s policy is not to use any chemical that is banned anywhere in the world on grounds of health.

So the company has had to devise a new way to handle the pineapple litter in the field. Now workers manually chop the leaves and stems twice. The chopped leaves and stalks are sprayed with bacteria that degrade and soften the detritus which is eventually plowed under. To put a good face on this more time consuming and expensive practice, Dole is hoping that it will improve soil structure and even sequester carbon dioxide.

But there is a big externality. As the leaves are rotting, they are a perfect medium for cattle flies to lay eggs and reproduce. These flies are so bothersome to cattle that livestock harried by the pests can lose up to 30 percent of their weight. Naturally cattle farmers hate this new process. So now, the company dots the countryside thickly with white plastic fly traps dosed with a sweet mixture that attracts and captures the flies. To make the fly traps effective, the company now applies more insecticide to them than it used to in order to control cattle fly infestations.

The new method of handling detritus has another sustainability downside. Dole had pioneered conservation tillage of pineapples in Honduras. In conservation tillage, the desiccated post-harvest residue is left in the field and new pineapple shoots are planted over it. The benefits of conservation tillage are that by cutting down on plowing, it saves fuel, reduces soil erosion, improves soil structure, and costs a lot less. So here’s a conundrum: What makes expensively plowing rotting pineapple leaf residue into the soil more “sustainable” than conservation tillage?

Our genial guide Amador gamely argued that both conventional and organic should exist and were complementary. However, he did tell the sustainability companeros, “I personally don’t think that the world will substitute organic for high yield agriculture. You can’t feed the whole world with organics.” On the other hand, Amador strongly made the point that despite the conundrums presented by organic production, Dole “has to respect those consumers who care about production methods.”

Amador also described a new initiative that a couple of Danish sustainability entrepreneurs had approached the company with recently—producing cellulosic fuel ethanol from pineapple leaves and litter. The idea is that the pineapple detritus would be treated with enzymes breaking the cellulose into sugars that could be fermented. The fermentation process would also produce food-grade carbon dioxide for commercial use. Amador said the company was interested, but the company wants “to see if it pays; that’s the most important part of sustainability.” Yes, indeed. So how do the Danes propose to finance their ethanol plant? With concessionary loans from the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank. This prompts another question: What’s sustainable about subsidies?

delatexingOur visit to Dole’s Muelle pineapple plantation was running quite late so our visit to the company’s Rio Frio banana plantation down toward the Caribbean coast got cut back significantly. It took more than two hours to get to Dole’s New Millennium Packing plant just before dark. The company is extremely, and I think justifiably, proud of this new plant. The plant received an honorable mention out of 600 submissions made during the big world water week conference at Stockholm in January. Traditionally harvested banana stems weighing about 100 pounds are bathed in giant vats of water to remove latex that drains from them after being cut down. In the new system, instead of harvesting whole stems at once, workers cut each hand of bananas (about 10 bananas) from the stem and place them on stretchers lined with banana leaves. Traditionally one worker would carry and attach the 100 pound stems to an overhead trolley system to transport bananas to the packing plants. One worker would then pull about 25 stems into the plant.

Now two workers carry and attach the stretchers to the trolley and the mules pull about 75 stretchers into the plant at a time. The real big difference is that banana hands are sprayed briefly with water and placed on specially designed trays where the latex drains off before they arrive at the sorting and boxing lines. The new system has uses a lot less water per 40 pound box of bananas, 8 liters instead of 104 liters. In addition, electricity use per box is cut in half. While the harvesting is more labor intensive, the new process results in a lot less bruised and discarded fruit, down from 20 percent to less than 10 percent. The company is still crunching the numbers, but the new system appears to be less expensive overall. One of the Costa Rican junketeers, Liana Babbar from the Organization for Tropical Studies, later told me that she’d talked with the workers, and they had told her they much preferred the new system since it involves much less heavy lifting and a more pleasant work environment. Workers like it; it uses fewer resources; and it makes more money. That sounds like a triple bottom line to me.

We junketeers finally arrived at Sueno Azul hotel on the Sarapiqui plains for the night. Details to come of conversations with some of my fascinating fellow junketeers about life cycle analysis and sustainability in my next dispatch. Also the next day, we get muddy and sweaty on a tramp to a local rain forest being preserved for carbon credits and get sniffed by drug detecting dogs before boarding the Dole Chile, one of the world’s biggest refrigerated container ships.

One tantalizer: One of my sustainability companeros tells me over rum and cokes that if a project doesn’t make a profit in five years, it’s not sustainable. Sounds pretty good to me.

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. This column first appeared at Reason.com

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.


Ronald Bailey is Science Correspondent


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