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 1970’s, the U.S. grew more cut flowers than it imported, only a small fraction originated in Colombia.
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 52% of the global market in 2013, with Colombia’s 15% 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 65% of flowers sold domestically, and more than 75% of those come from Colombia.
Because California’s coastal climate is also ideal for growing flowers, the state supplies 20-25% of all cut flowers sold nationwide and 75% 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 or kiosks were imported from Colombia or Ecuador. For example, 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 20% 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.
Cut flowers grown in California are also routinely doused with herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and other chemicals, over 400,000 lbs. 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 American 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 200 plus flower farms in California are yet certified.
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, 2/3 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 70-80 hour work week in peak seasons (Valentine’s and Mother’s Day) were the norm and that child labor is 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 80% of all cut flowers today from South America is very carbon intensive. According to CCFC’s CEO, there are 7-10 daily incoming flights devoted 100% to shipping flowers, increasing by 35/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 3x – 16x 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.
Americans 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.