Grown Not Flown
What is the real cost of imported flowers?
The power of flowers is undeniable. Their beauty, fragrance and uniqueness lend them the ability to deliver an unmatched joy. For centuries, flowers have served as a vessel of love, thankfulness, apology, appreciation, mourning, and much else; there is no limit to the service of flowers. It is no wonder the global cut flower trade is worth more than $29 billion (1). To keep up with demand, a whopping 82% of cut flowers sold in the US are imported, making it the number one consumer of imported flowers (2). Additionally, due to this high demand for flowers, commercial growing operations are executed with little concern for the adverse effects on the environment, workers and consumers.
So, let’s see what really goes into that grocery store bouquet.
The underlying impact of imported flowers
A long travel - high carbon footprint:
The vast majority of flowers imported to the U.S. come from Colombia, Ecuador, and Kenya. These flowers are traveling thousands of miles to eventually land on the table of consumers all throughout the U.S.. Imported blooms find themselves aboard planes, boats, trains and trucks, you name it! And this isn’t a leisurely trip either, every moment in transit is a precious moment lost in vase life.
To keep the flowers fresh during overseas travel, refrigerated airplane holds are commonly utilized. This increases energy usage and only compounds the estimated 360,000 metric tons of CO2 produced each year to export flowers from Colombia alone. (3) Now of course, that airplane isn’t going to hand-deliver your bouquet to your door so the emissions don’t stop there. Many flower imports are flown to Miami International Airport and then travel by refrigerated truck to various destinations. These gas-guzzling vehicles pack on the CO2 emissions. As mentioned, many of these transport vehicles (whether it be plane or automobile), are equipped with refrigeration to keep flowers fresh. This brings an additional threat to the table. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are chemicals consisting of hydrogen, fluorine, and carbon that are commonly used in air conditioning and refrigeration units. HFCs are considered to be thousands of times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas (4).
A commercial airplane leaves a trail of pollutants. ITR.
To compound the adverse environmental impact of greenhouse gas emissions, flowers are thirsty plants, using enormous amounts of water throughout production. It is estimated that the water footprint for one rose flower is between 7-13 liters (5). Considering the billions of stems grown and exported, the water footprint is astronomical and can be very costly to water-poor countries. Lake Naivasha in Kenya has only 60% of its initial water reserves remaining, this drop correlating directly with the boom in flower production (6).
Heavy handed chemical applications:
At this point, we are just adding insult to injury when it comes to the harmful impact on the environment. In regard to the toxic chemicals applied to commercial cut flowers during production, we’re now directly putting workers and consumers at risk.
Commercial cut flower operations have become well-oiled machines. The intensive growing processes typically involve cramming as many plants as possible into growing facilities to achieve the highest possible stem yield. There is no limit to the approach of eliminating pests, diseases and weeds from interfering with productivity.
Dalila Guzman, a laborer for 26 years in Southern California’s rose industry recalls the horrifying working conditions. She suffered instant headaches from the chemical ‘bombs’ that were released within greenhouses to fumigate the crops (7). Dalila is only one of many workers exposed to the rampant, irresponsible pesticide usage in the cut flower industry.
Studies have also shown that pesticide contamination is present in surrounding land and water. Residues can seep into nearby water bodies, compromising aquatic life, as well as causing decreased fertility and harm to organisms in nearby soil (8).
The harmful effects of these pesticides are not contained to the production areas. Pesticide residues can persist on the cut flowers once into the hands of florists and consumers. A recent study was conducted with twenty volunteer florists, each equipped with a pair of gloves and allowed to go about their normal work for 2 days. Upon analyzing the gloves after these two days, 111 active substances were present with an average of 37 substances per florist. A number of these substances well exceeded their Acceptable Operator Exposure Level (AOEL), with clofentezine (a possible carcinogen) reaching 393%, nearly 4 times the AOEL (9).
You may be wondering, shouldn’t someone be regulating this? Well, since flowers are not sold as an ‘edible’ product such as food items, pesticide regulations are far less strict, in fact, they hardly exist at all. Due to this, imported flowers can carry up to 50 times the amount of pesticide residues permitted on food (10). Kind of makes you think twice about smelling the roses, huh? Even moreso, would you really want to give a loved one a bouquet full of toxins? Not me.
Workers applying chemicals in greenhouse production in Colombia. Herald-tribune.
Toxic working environments:
Not only are workers subject to pesticide exposure, there are additional factors that play into an unhealthy work environment. As the cut flower industry grows, production regions struggle to keep up with the influx of workers. The city of Naivasha in Kenya saw a 40x increase in their population and current infrastructure is unable to support this increase (11). Hospitals, schools and living quarters are scarce, greatly impacting quality of life and access to resources. Low wages only compound to the difficulties many workers in this industry face. Workers in Kenya typically make a mere 59 to 94 dollars monthly (12).
Of the millions of workers in the cut flower industry, a great majority of them are women and children. Many women work through pregnancies, putting their unborn children at higher risk for neurobehavioral issues such as motor-coordination, attention, balance and short-term memory due to pesticide exposure (13).
It may seem like all butterflies and roses once that grocery store bouquet is sitting pretty on your table, but it is a grim reality for many.
Now that we’ve exhausted the doom and gloom of imported blooms, let’s flip the script and talk about the good stuff.
Why it is so important to support local flowers
Grown in the neighborhood:
When it comes to locally grown flowers, distance traveled between the field and the consumer hardly ever exceeds 100 miles. For SunKissed, I enjoy serving the hyper-local community and share my flowers within a very intimate 25 mile radius. There is hardly ever a gap of more than 48 hours between when a flower is cut from the farm and on the table of a neighbor. One of the aspects I greatly value about my business is that my customers are not ‘customers’, they are friends. Each transaction is rather an interaction and an exchange of joy between the grower and the community.
A local farmer and her field grown flowers. SunKissed.
Efficient water usage:
Smaller growing operations have the ability to design a tailored watering system that enhances water efficiency. Drip irrigation is a popular method of watering which employs the use of reusable tubing laid at the base of plants that delivers water directly to the rootzone. This is where water is most valuable to a plant. Coupled with closely monitoring natural rainfall, growers are very in-tune to the water usage on their farms.
Natural approach to growing/no toxic chemicals:
Many local growers are incredibly passionate about the environment and put in place strict growing practices to protect the environment, themselves and the consumer. This means that chemical applications are typically held at a minimum. At SunKissed, there are ZERO toxic chemical applications. I work closely with the soil, native insects and pollinators, and each flower to enhance the growing environment, making it as healthy and supportive as possible. The need for toxic chemicals is then unnecessary. Herbicides are not needed to combat weeds as I employ living pathways, natural mulch and biodegradable mulch. Insecticides are not needed because I support the native insect populations who in turn assist in controlling pest populations naturally. Fungicides are not needed to control disease because I focus heavily on soil health and plant health which renders them strong enough to defend themselves from severe infection. The greatest defense a garden can maintain is good health. Just as a person. A healthy immune system is the key to fending off infection and disease. Keeping the soil healthy, supporting my micro-ecosystem and being closely involved with my garden renders it a healthy immune system, allowing it to be capable of caring for itself in the long run.
A black swallowtail caterpillar snacks on dill. Crops free from harmful chemical applications make a lovely treat for critters. SunKissed.
A healthy work environment:
As opposed to the fast-paced, production focused, pesticide riddled big business side of the cut flower industry; small, local growers are creating success by growing slowly and with intention. No local grower starts their cut flower business to get rich. It starts with a passion for nature and an appreciation for the natural world. Local cut flower growers feel a connection with nature and care deeply for the production of a quality product coupled with a mindful approach to protecting their surrounding environment. All in all, local cut flower growers are just not raising flowers, they are uplifting themselves, their neighbors, their communities and the natural world around them.
Make the switch - support local
Realistically, we can’t flip the flower industry on its head in just one night, refusing imported blooms in one fell swoop. A reasonable approach to mediating this growing issue is to simply choose local whenever possible. Making consistent small decisions will lead to larger impacts. Encourage those around you to be mindful and encourage ‘support local’ habits. This isn’t just about flowers either, big business is looming everywhere. Create a bond with your local growers, attend your local farmers market, have a conversation with the people growing your food, growing your flowers, creating your artisanal goods. It’ll do your heart (and the world) more good than you could imagine.