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Can our world afford cut flowers? The true cost of Valentine’s Day



February 15, 2016

Single_red_roseCan our world afford cut flowers? What’s the true cost of all those Valentine’s Day roses and bouquets that will soon begin to wilt?

With the world’s population expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, and the prediction of a 70% gap between the crop calories we grow today and how many will be needed, can we afford to allow vast tracts of the world’s arable land and huge quantities of precious water to be used to grow flowers? And what about all those ‘flower miles’?

Although the Netherlands only grows about 10% of the world’s cut flowers, it is the conduit through which an astonishing 60% of the world’s flower exports are distributed, predominantly imported from the world’s biggest cut flower producers – Ethiopia and Kenya in Africa, and Ecuador and Colombia in Central and South America, and predominantly sold in the USA, Japan and Germany.

There’s an argument that these flower farms provide employment and export dollars for these ‘third world’ countries, but there are significant issues.

First, there is the virtual water exporting, with 45% of Kenya’s water resources now exported as cut flowers. Farmers and villagers around flower-growing hotspots, such as Lake Naivasha are protesting at the huge amount of water being taken from the lake, to the detriment of essential agriculture. (To be fair, though, the cup of coffee you drank this morning exports large amounts of virtual water too.)

Second there is the issue of chemical use, with many imported cut flowers carrying significant pest residues which would not be permitted on food crops. One source estimates that 20% of all flowers imported into the USA have been grown using chemicals that are banned in the USA. Although that not might pose any health risks for those buying the flowers, do those flower buyers realise they are subsidising possible environmental damage and compromising worker safety?

Third, there is the potential to send extremely damaging insect pests and diseases around the world.

Fourth, there is the land degradation and water pollution that results from over use of fertilisers.

Fifth, there is the ‘flower miles’ cost of sending those refrigerated long-stemmed roses around the world, estimated at 22kg of CO2 for every dozen roses.

Estimated Valentine’s Day flowers sales:
USA – $2.3 billion USD
UK – £350 million GBP
Australia – $100 million AUD

Is that symbol of love worth it?

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Landscape design
8 years ago

Seriously makes you think about all the things we consume and what a waste.
When will the governments make decisions that benefit the earth over the pocket.

8 years ago

I’ve got friends who gave up their rose-growing cut-flower business last year. Couldn’t compete with the cheap imports from Colombia. A few years ago they’d managed to stave off a threat when roses started being imported from India as the flowers weren’t of high-quality (not opening before they dropped their petals and not lasting long – by contrast a bouquet of my friend’s roses they gave me lasted 3 weeks in a vase).

The cut flowers from India were supposed to be treated so cuttings would be unsuccessful but I heard that people had tried to grow them and had had some success.

The points you make about sprays and water are valid, and you might also like to add exploitation of workers. Not only would workers in the countries mentioned not be wearing protective gear when needed, I bet they’re not being paid much either. And nary a union in sight.

Supermarkets in the UK (and elsewhere probably, but I happen to know about the UK) are contract-growing fresh produce in Africa because it’s cheaper to fly it in than grow it at home! Utter madness. Economics goes mad when it removes human costs from the equation – the cost of losing a business, the cost of not being able to ‘buy local’, the cost of illness and death from the work you’re required to do …

8 years ago

Worth considering. Good read.