Cut flowers are a multi-billion dollar global trade industry with a not-so-pretty underbelly rooted in where and how they are grown.
By Sarah “Steve” Mosko
Cut flowers add color and gaiety to any special occasion and are a time-honored way to say thank you or beautify living spaces. However, cut flowers have become a multi-billion dollar global trade industry with a not so pretty underbelly rooted in where and how they are grown.
Historically in the U.S., flowers were first grown in greenhouses in Eastern states and later in Western and Southern states when commercial air transportation made preserving freshness possible. In the 1970s, the U.S. grew more cut flowers than it imported, only a small fraction originated in Colombia.
The Colombian Connection
However, new market forces were unleashed in 1991 when the U.S. suspended import duties on flowers from Colombia to curb growing of coca for cocaine and to bolster the Colombian economy. By 2003, the U.S. was importing more flowers from Colombia than were produced domestically. The combination of cheap unskilled labor (largely female) and ideal, year-round growing conditions created an explosive market for Colombian floriculture.
On a global level, the Netherlands has long been the largest cut flower exporter, boasting fifty-two percent of the global market in 2013, with Colombia’s fifteen percent market share coming in a distant second. The U.S., however, still relies largely on Colombia for cut flowers, everything from roses, carnations and chrysanthemums to exotics like orchids and bird-of-paradise. Imports make up about sixty-five percent of flowers sold domestically, and more than seventy-five percent of those come from Colombia.
Because California’s coastal climate is also ideal for growing flowers, the state supplies twenty to twenty-five percent of all cut flowers sold nationwide and seventy percent of those grown domestically, according to the California Cut Flower Commission (CCFC). San Diego and Santa Barbara counties grow the most. Ecuador is the third major source of cut flowers sold in the U.S.
Shoppers can assume that many flowers sold at supermarkets, florists, and kiosks were imported from Colombia or Ecuador. For example, in the U.S., Wal-Mart, Kroeger, Safeway, Whole Foods, Albertson’s, and Costco all source most of their flowers from Colombia. Because flowers are not food, limitations on what chemicals can be applied are far more lax. In Colombia, about twenty percent of pesticides used in flower production are known carcinogens or toxins which are restricted or banned in North America or Europe, according to a 2007 report from The International Labor Rights Fund.
Getting Better in California
Cut flowers grown in California are also routinely doused with herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and other chemicals, over 400,000 pounds in 2009, according to U.S. Dept. of Agriculture statistics. However, CCFC is determined to see California become the national model for sustainable flower farming via its new BloomCheck certification program. To merit the BloomCheck label, standards must be met designed to assure that farms are “socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable.“
CCFC’s CEO Kasey Cronquist cites the multiple layers of oversight in California’s floriculture industry that were already in place – including the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture, Department of Pesticide Regulation, Coastal Commission and Water Board – and stand in sharp contrast to a lack of regulatory oversight in Colombia’s and Ecuador’s flower industry. BloomCheck adds an additional third-party guarantee that flowers were grown with the best available practices for protecting water, air, soil quality, wildlife, and the welfare of workers and the community. However, because the BloomCheck program is new, only three of the two hundred-plus flower farms in California are yet certified.
Why Buy Sustainably and Locally Grown Cut Flowers
There are solid reasons to buy sustainably and/or locally grown flowers which mirror those for buying organic foodstuffs grown close to home:
For the soil, water quality, birds and bees: Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals allowed in conventional floriculture can contaminate soil and local water sources. Once applied, chemicals can become airborne and incorporated into rain and snow which contaminate distant lands and bodies of water. Pollution is also introduced into the food chain when insects and birds feed on the plants.
For the health and dignity of agricultural workers: A benchmark study in 1990 identified 127 different pesticides to which floriculture workers in Colombia could be exposed. Since then, several studies have suggested links between pesticide exposure in floriculture workers and reproductive toxicity, including decreased sperm quality in males, lower fecundity in females, and increased risk of congenital malformations in offspring.
Furthermore, two-thirds of Colombian and Ecuadorian flower workers suffer skin rashes, respiratory problems, and eye problems due to work-related chemical exposure, according to a 2007 study by the International Labor Rights Fund. The study also found that poverty-level wages and a seventy to eighty hour work week in peak seasons (Valentine’s and Mother’s Day) were the norm and that child labor was common. Consumer responsibility, compassion and human decency dictate minimizing exposing fellow humans to unnecessary occupational health risks.
For a smaller carbon footprint: The refrigerated air transport that brings in eighty percent of all cut flowers today from South America is very carbon intensive. According to CCFC’s CEO, there are seven to ten daily incoming flights devoted one hundred percent to shipping flowers, increasing by thirty-five per day in peak seasons. California grown flowers, in contrast, always ship by piggy-backing onto passenger flights, and CCFC calculates that, “the carbon footprint to ship California grown flowers throughout the United States is three to sixteen times less than those imported from South America.”
For florists and consumers: The U.S. Department of Agriculture neither tests cut flowers for pesticides nor requires that flowers be free of toxic residues, putting anyone who handles them at risk of exposure.
Look for Certification
People today are asking more questions about where and how their food is grown and demanding more sustainably-produced and organic options. So too should we be mindful of the hidden costs to people and the environment of cut flowers, whether produced domestically or abroad. Look for the BloomCheck label or certification by other organizations that set standards for social and environmental responsibility on imported flowers, like Florverde, Veriflora, FairTrade USA, or Rainforest Alliance. Certified organically grown flowers can be ordered online from CaliforniaOrganicFlowers, FlowersFromHawaii, and GardeniaOrganic.
We can all use our purchasing power to push the cut flower industry to embrace policies that better respect the health and welfare of agricultural workers and the environment.
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Field to Vase Dinner Tour
The Certified American Grown Council is a coalition of U.S. flower growers whose logo certifies that flowers were grown domestically. The council is offering flower lovers across America opportunities to gather for Field to Vase Dinners, truly unique dining experiences which celebrate the beauty and heritage of American grown flowers.
At each intimate dinner, “farm-to-table” chefs use locally sourced ingredients to create artisan meals – including craft wine and beer – served on tables adorned with seasonal American grown flowers. Each event is held in a flower farming landscape which allows people to meet real farmers and experience first-hand the connection between flowers, agriculture and America’s floriculture roots. Visit this website if you’re interested in learning more.
Sarah “Steve” Mosko is a freelance writer in southern California who endeavors to educate the public about the myriad environmental problems created by human activities. Read more of her published articles at www.BoogieGreen.com. This article was also published in Natural Life Magazine.