Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Costs of a Rose

Michelle in again, with a post just in time for Valentine's day.  While not about food, I thought it would be interesting to discuss another type of plant that often enters our lives on various social occasions--cut flowers.
Really, flowers in February. Anyone else thinks that's crazy?

Beyond their price tag, what is the cost of a rose?  If it's grown in your garden, far less than most roses of course, but of the approximately 4 billion flowers given in the US today, only a tiny fraction are from the US at all, never mind local.  It makes sense though, I mean, it's February.  What kind of rose grows in February?

In America, about 78% of our cut roses come from Columbia and Ecuador, because the temperatures make for ideal conditions for growth. We also allow them to export flowers to the US tariff-free in an effort to offer an alternative to drug production.

Unfortunately, as with most capitalist ventures, the labor practices may also have something to do with it.  There are sweatshop conditions, low pay and according to a 2007 study by the International Labor Right's Fund, the workers are subject to 70-80 hour work weeks during high season. When the flowers arrive in the US, Agricultural Services requires that the flowers show absolutely no sign of infestation of either pest or fungus, and since Ecuadorian and Colombian laws are not strict on chemical use, anything goes when it comes to keeping them looking fresh.  Many of the chemicals used on the flowers have been banned here, and 66% of the workers suffer from work-related health issues, such as skin rashes, respiratory and eye problems, as well as reproductive issues ranging from higher rates of miscarriages, congenital malformations, and premature births, all the result of the toxic pesticides and fungicides used on the plants.

Beautiful, but potentially toxic.
And, by the way, the FDA bans the USE of those chemicals here, but because flowers aren't a food product, there's absolutely no limit to what they can be contaminated with even when they are delivered to your hands. If you really want to be horrified, check out how many wedding cakes are adorned with conventional rose petals.

Of course, this is not to mention the environmental impact, from the removal of swaths of rainforests to replace with greenhouses, the redirection of water into flower production, and the contamination of soil and water that comes from overuse of pesticides and fertilizer.  Not to mention the cold-freighting them from greenhouse to border check-ins, to warehouses, and retail stores..and all the packaging used to protect them, and then later to display them with.

And even if you buy your flowers grown in the US, if they aren't organic you're still not in the clear.  While not as bad as those from Latin America, the us floricultural industry is one of the most toxic in all of agriculture, using pesticides like acephate and methyl bromide in large quantities.  The former is a neurotoxin that is hazardous to humans and fatal to bees, and the latter one of the top ozone depleters. Among the warnings on commonly used ones are "likely carcinogen."

If you are in Europe, it's much more likely that your roses come from Kenya, or another part of Africa. Sadly, not only do they suffer from the same pesticide problems as mentioned above, but also a much deeper issue.  The country is plagued by drought. Flowers not only take a lot of water to grow, but the water can be polluted by their cultivation and lastly--even if you somehow solve the problems of labor rights and safety of workers, ecological harm etc--you cannot remove this fact: that by taking the roses out of Kenya, they are essentially exporting their precious water to other countries. Roses, like most plants are mostly water. However, the industry has become so ingrained there, and unemployment is so high otherwise that it leaves the country and it's people in a precarious, if utterly unsustainable economic market.

Supposedly new colors like yellow diluted the fragrance.

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?  Sadly one of the costs of mass-producing roses is that the fragrance we know so well from the garden has been bred out of most of the conventional lines.  They're bred for color and hardiness now--the ability to withstand thousands of miles between where they are grown, where they are sold, and where they end up. In some ways what we are selling is the memory of a rose really, and those perfectly sculpted petals.

If you really love roses, try an organic alternative, or better yet, check out Local Harvest and see if there are any local organic growers.  There are also blossoming flower certification programs like Veriflora.   There are also fair-trade varieties, that try to reward good treatment of the workers and environment.  The absolute best thing you can do though, is to appreciate flowers when they are in season, and find some other way to celebrate when they aren't.  Otherwise, no matter how ethical most of the practices are you are still supporting a product that uses so many resources to grow off-season that exist for nothing more than aesthetics.

Some other resources, for the curious:
Pick Your Poison--Mothers Day Bouquets
The Economics of Valentines Day
MSNBC's Connect the Dots: Where Did Those Roses Come From
Amy Stewarts "Flower Confidential"

All photos are stock courtesy of Morguefile

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the article, there is a lot of great info here. I am not at all surprised by the chemicals having worked in a flower shop briefly, but the shipping distance and effects on the originating areas are pretty shocking.