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Roses are Red, not Green


With romantic gestures and heartfelt proclamations in full swing, Valentine’s Day marks a surge in the cut flower market, with sales in the US soaring to $2.3BN in 2020. Expectedly, over half of those were roses, of which 69% were red. Given these sky-high demands, it is no surprise that leading consumers, such as the US and UK, turn to the global floriculture market to source their supply. Though being shipped from point A to B, it has become apparent that bouquets bear a significant environmental toll: what price does the planet pay to meet these demands?


Technically speaking, we could restrict the supply to domestic markets; however, with the climate in equatorial countries being more favourable, flowers can be cultivated outside without a need for energy-guzzling greenhouses. Though the allure of foreign-grown flowers wades deeper than this; generally, the labour costs in exporting countries such as Ecuador, Kenya, and Ethiopia are significantly lower than in importing nations with more disposable income. 


Disregarding the economic incentive, the working conditions are often precarious, and cut flowers must endure thousands of miles in refrigerated aeroplane holds before being dispersed across the nation in refrigerated trucks. Michael Ayres, the managing director of the Dearman Group, which specialises in mobile refrigeration, notes that these trucks consume twenty-five per cent more fuel than their non-refrigerated counterparts and frequently rely on diesel propulsion. 


California emerges as the chief domestic rose producer in the United States, though with more consistent temperatures, most of the nation’s supply is flown in from Latin America. A staggering 75% of the country’s flower stock is imported. Amongst its primary suppliers is Colombia, where cut flowers rank as the fourth-largest contributor to foreign exchange, trailing only coffee, petroleum, and bananas. The collaboration with Colombia stemmed from the Andean Trade Preference Act established in 1991. Originally devised to counter the country's pervasive cocaine production, this initiative unexpectedly catalysed the flourishing growth of the Andean flower trade. 


As per the International Council on Clean Transportation, 2018 Valentine’s Day flowers cultivated in Colombian farms and transported to the US generated roughly 360,000 metric tons of Carbon Dioxide emissions. To contextualise, this is akin to the environmental impact of 78,000 cars being driven for an entire year. Considering this is just one annual holiday, it does not bode well for the long-term carbon consequences of the floriculture industry. 


Across the Atlantic, the Netherlands still holds the majority of the European market, although Kenya runs a close second, supplying nearly 40% of Europe’s cut flowers in 2017. Despite the higher air mileage associated with Kenyan flora – leading to increased carbon emissions – the Netherlands compensates through its strenuous production cycle. With its ‘northern’ situation, the Netherlands relies heavily upon controlled farming in greenhouses that notoriously consume colossal amounts of fossil fuels - around 79% of the energy consumed by Dutch agriculture is attributed to the operation of these very greenhouses. 


Cranfield University in the UK spearheaded a study evaluating the carbon footprint of roses in both countries. Before transportation, 12,000 rose stems cultivated in Kenya resulted in 2,200kgCO2 emissions, whereas an equivalent quantity in the Netherlands yielded a staggering 36,000kgCO2. 


Looking at the figures, expressing concern about these statistics is justified, but what actionable steps can we take to mitigate the environmental burden of cut flowers? According to Rebecca Swinn, who led a study at Lancaster University, for those of us in the UK, we should purchase locally-grown British bouquets. Research found that the carbon footprint of an imported, mixed bouquet was ten times the amount of a British reared bunch. Swinn’s report quantified a single Dutch lily stem to have a carbon footprint of 3.47 kgCO2, approximately four times the amount of a British lily at 0.819KgCO2. Moreover, she identified that a bouquet of five Kenyan roses, three Dutch lilies, and three Kenyan gypsophilas would produce 32.132KgCO2 – an outrageous amount when compared to the 1.75kgCO2 output of a 15-stem, mixed British bouquet. When a one-way flight from London to Paris can emit around 55 kgCO2, is the bouquet really worth it? If it's British and local, sure, but as soon as we open up the playing field to the rest of the globe, it becomes more dubious.


Others insist that importing flowers is integral to millions of livelihoods; after all, in Kenya, it brings forth over 2 million jobs and more than $500 million per annum for the nation’s economy. If you do purchase imported flowers, you should opt for Fairtrade-marked products, which forward a 10% bonus to Fairtrade-certified farms per stem sold. Alternatively, you could polish off that green thumb and attempt to grow your own! 


The carbon footprint of flower farming persists like a stubborn weed, but that is not the only worry factor. For a singular rose, it is estimated to have a water footprint of around 7 to 13 litres. In Kenya, floricultural pursuits account for almost half of its virtual water exports. Concerningly, drought-stricken Lake Naivasha has seen half of its total water volume supped for use on flower farms. 


Beyond the gas and water, pesticides are having a horrific effect: chemical run-off; an insect apocalypse; and adverse health implications. Since the flowers are not to be digested, they are not subject to the same regulations as other – edible – crops, which has led to the excessive use of harmful chemicals. Frequently, those chemicals will leach into the ground and subsequently contaminate the water. Previous studies found that the use of such pesticides was having deplorable consequences on the health of the employees, in some cases rendering female workers infertile. As you can imagine, it is not good news for the pollinators either. 


In India, circa 8,000,000 metric tons of temple flowers are jettisoned into the rivers each year, which means any excess chemicals infiltrate the water supply. In an attempt to avoid this, there have been several initiatives in which individuals gather floral waste and repurpose it into products like organic compost, biodegradable packaging, biofuel, and even natural clothing dyes – this is colloquially known as “flowercycling”.


Now that the facts and figures have been laid out on the table, perhaps when the next holiday rolls around we should exercise our sustainable thinking and get creative with our gift-giving! Let us think twice before buying that bouquet. With small changes in lifestyle, we can, quite literally, make a world of difference. 


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