Go Green, Get Rich, ‘Kiasu’

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An article in the January/February 2007 issue of Business 2.0 lists nine of the biggest problems facing our society: global warming, oil dependency, hunger and malnutrition, dirty air, dirty water, overfishing, epidemics, drug-resistant infections and waste disposal. If you can solve these problems, any one of them, you can make millions!

How can we tackle these problems? Since we have always been an industry that has the only product that takes carbon dioxide and water and produces carbohydrates and oxygen in the process, it seems to me that we should take time to tell our story.

In the 1960s and 1970s, my colleague Bill Carpenter worked on cut rose production. He grew roses at different levels of carbon dioxide and found that the greatest growth occurred at 1,500 to 2,000 ppm. At that time, the ambient level was about 320 ppm. He actually showed that in the winter time, low CO2 levels were one of the limiting factors in rose production in northern climates.

The use of the words "greenhouse gases" should really be questioned. These buzzwords are used to help the media and consumers understand gases trapped in the atmosphere as if the world were surrounded by a huge enclosure. However, the gases trapped in the atmosphere don’t change CO2 into O2. Only plants can do that!

In the June 2007 Produce Business magazine, a new columnist Marc De Naeyer wrote an interesting article on the subject of global warming, titled "Global Warming’s Shameful Marketing Attempts."

De Naeyer indicated that the largest share of CO2 emissions is produced by large automobiles that consumers drive to the supermarket "to pick up locally grown, fair trade, CO2-neutral, ethically responsible, guaranteed no child labor involved, fresh produce ideally packaged in tons of non-degradable plastic."

He reported that in the Netherlands, someone suggested that all the greenhouses should be built adjacent to the expressway so that the greenhouses could capture all the CO2 from the automobiles and use it to convert to O2.

Europe is heavily involved in counting CO2 emissions and trading them from one company to another. De Naeyer’s major point is "global warming is too serious an issue to not be able to have a constructive debate about it." 

The Year Of No Summer

The most serious global warming event in history occurred when the Tamboro volcano east of Java erupted in April 1815. The force was 10 times that of the Mount St. Helens’ eruption on May 18, 1980. Ninety thousand people died within the first 24 hours. The eruption followed a period of exceptional volcanic activity sending so much ash into the atmosphere that it caused temperature change over the entire planet.

The ash in the atmosphere caused the sun’s rays to be reflected and reduced the temperature of the earth’s surface. Further, the sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere combined with moisture to produce sulfuric acid.

Historically, 1816 was called "The Year of No Summer." In Europe, crops died in the fields. Frost or snow killed them before they could be harvested. In the northern United States, snow was present every month of the year. Food was scarce.

If you read history, you will find that Mother Nature has always caused greater change than the damage that is done by humans in the course of their normal living activities.

De Naeyer’s column maintains that the CO2 numbers being bandied about are inaccurate and meaningless. He believes that the statistics are not about the environment but marketing advantages, pure and simple.

In his July 2007 column, De Naeyer quoted British retailer Marks and Spencer’s Web site, which introduced its "Five Years, Five Commitments, One World." The five commitments are climate change, waste, sustainable raw materials, fair trade and health. Marks and Spencer’s Web site indicates that following these commitments is "Plan A because there is no Plan B."

If we look at these five commitments, I believe our industry could make the biggest difference in the area of waste. We heavily depend on plastic for pots, flats, hanging baskets, greenhouse coverings and so on.

While we have made efforts to reduce the volume of waste, we have a long way to go to make a significant change in our production practices.

Some companies have begun to use biodegradable containers for some of their products. I’m sure that someone or some company will develop biodegradable containers for all our products and they will be economical for broad use in our industry. 

Achieving Economic Excellence

While we all worry about these issues facing our society and are trying to do our part to help reduce their negative impacts, we must remember that we have to stay economically profitable to support our efforts.

It has become increasingly difficult to maintain a profitable business. Changes will occur. We must adapt and, at the same time, profit from these changes.

The June 2007 issue of NWA World Traveler had an article about the great growth of Singapore. The article indicated that this country has always been fueled by its ambition. Singaporean English recently appropriated a new term to reflect this go-getter attribute: "kiasu." It is derived from the popular Chinese Hokkien dialect words "kia," meaning afraid, and "su," to lose. Its early use referred to putting in that extra minute or extra effort to impress. "Kiasu" has become Singapore’s national mantra as it strives for and achieves global excellence in every economic sector: best economy, best airport, best hotel, world’s largest fountain and the list grows longer every year.

I believe that our industry has the "kiasu" spirit, also. We have made great progress in growing our industry, providing customers with beautiful and useful products they can grow and enjoy. We also provide them with plants they can use for food and to beautify their environments.

Each year challenges us to take all the circumstances around us and put them into the puzzle we have to solve to make our businesses and lives successful. To do this we have to have the "kiasu" attitude.

Afraid to lose, "kiasu" means you win!

Will Carlson is a Michigan State University emeritus professor who has devoted his career to educating growers. He also had the vision to launch Greenhouse Grower magazine with Dick Meister more than 25 years ago.

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