Costa Rica last year exported 114 million boxes of bananas, amounting to more than 2 million tons of the fruit.
But the transportation, operations and fertilizers resulted in as-yet-uncalculated tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
That, however, could be changing.
Costa Rica’s National Banana Corporation (CORBANA), a public-private association that promotes banana exports, has announced plans to make the country’s top agricultural industry carbon neutral.
“We are going to be the first country in Latin America – and we believe the world – to do this with an agricultural industry on a nationwide level,” said Jorge Sauma, CORBANA’s general manager. “This is going to set our product apart.”
President Oscar Arias has said he hopes to set the country on course to become the first carbon-neutral nation by 2021.
CORBANA’s announcement follows a rough couple of months for the sector, which directly employs 40,000 people. Unusually cold temperatures in December were followed by a drought at the beginning of the year, shrinking production.
In the first six months of this year, the industry grossed $334 million, a 2.6 percent drop from the first six months of 2007. Total exports this year are expected to fall 7.1 percent to 106 million boxes.
While the recent climate fluctuations have had a relatively minor effect on Costa Rica’s bananas, the future droughts and more extreme temperature swings forecasted worldwide by climate experts could have a devastating impact on the crop.
CORBANA’s plan is still in the beginning phases. Sauma handed the corporation’s official proposal to the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) just over a week ago.
The plan, hashed out by representatives from the industry on CORBANA’s Environmental Commission, calls for an initial count of just how much greenhouse gas the industry produces.
“Normally the balance from the cultivation of bananas is very close to neutral,” Sauma said. “But the transportation of the fruit, the docks, the vehicles – that is the part that we really need to compensate.”
Sauma said the commission has already begun measuring greenhouse gas emissions. To become carbon neutral, the commission’s plan calls for decreasing those emissions and then conserving enough forest to absorb the remaining greenhouse gasses they do emit.
According to Sauma, CORBANA owns 1,200 hectares of protected forest, while private banana producers own another 6,300 hectares.
“We expect to reach carbon neutrality in two or three years,” Sauma said.
Within the industry, some companies have already begun these efforts on their own.
Dole Fresh Fruit International, the Latin American division of Dole Food Co., last year announced it would aim to make its Costa Rican banana and pineapple operations carbon-neutral.
“When Costa Rica announced its carbon-neutral strategy in 2007, we decided to jump on their bandwagon and be one of the pilot companies,” said Rudy Amador, director of environmental affairs for Dole Fresh Fruit.
During the past year, Dole has launched a series of programs aimed at reducing the company’s emissions. By improving the company’s shipping containers with better insulation and using more sophisticated software to run the refrigeration, the company has cut its energy use by 35 percent, Amador said.
Dole also has modified its fertilization program, he said, using what are called “controlled release fertilizers.”
“When you apply nitrogen-containing fertilizer, you’re going to have a release over time of nitrogen dioxide. When you look at greenhouse gasses, nitrogen dioxide has a green house warming effect of 310 times that of carbon dioxide,” Amador said.
“With our new fertilization, we use approximately 50 percent less nitrogen. We managed to reduce our yearly emissions by the equivalent of 9,000 tons of carbon dioxide.”
Dole has also put all of its drivers and machinery operators through a training course on how to use equipment more efficiently.
Amador said the company wants to begin introducing biofuel into its operations, but Costa Rica does not yet have a supplier that can provide enough.
Dole in Costa Rica is also conserving 2,500 hectares of forest on its own property, planting new forests, and funding forest conservation through the National Forest Financing Fund (FONAFIFO).
The company’s next step, Amador said, is to reach out to customers, particularly in compensating for the greenhouse gas emitted by shipping the bananas from Latin America to mainly U.S. and European markets.
Making Bananas More Eco-Friendly
To reduce the banana sector’s emissions of greenhouse gases, Costa Rica’s National Banana Corporation is calling on banana producers to:
• increase use of biofuels
• use biodegradable plastics
• decrease pesticides
• employ more earth-friendly fertilizers
• cultivate trees on unused land
• conserve existing forest land