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Reflections on your St Valentine’s Day rose

Updated Friday, 13th February 2009

Richard Skellington suggests we should consider the environmental and ethical cost of our Valentine's Day roses.

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I wonder if this Valentine’s Day your thoughts will turn to the origins of that special single cut flower you purchased for your loved one - that deep, crimson rose you carefully picked from a range of other beauties, its thorns carefully removed, its petals arching upwards thanks to some gentle tweaking of its genetic make up.

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How much do you care about where your rose came from? Do you consider if the rose has been produced in poor working conditions where the rights of workers have been violated for miniscule pay? Do you think about the huge carbon footprint of that single rose? It has probably flown thousands of miles to reach your flower retailer.

Trouble is for lovers cut flowers on St Valentine’s Day often come with a cost that can be measured in human terms by workers poisoned by insecticides who toil long hours in appalling conditions to satisfy our annual desire to say ‘I love you’ .

There are environmental downsides too as more and more land is irrigated to produce flowers for western tastes with a damaging impact on water tables. The land used for flower cultivation is often rich arable land or is land reclaimed after deforestation. In Ecuador alone over 5,000 hectares of farm land now is developed for rose cultivation.

As our demand for cut roses increases at lower prices, so does competition among developing countries to supply them. Warmer climates and lower labour costs have taken producers away from Europe in favour of Latin America and Africa where controls on pesticides are more relaxed.

Chilling words

Americans for example purchase £6.4 billion worth of stems and bouquets each year The Society of American Florists estimated that 215 million roses were sold last St Valentine’s Day. Over 9 out of 10 cut flowers to the US came from Columbia or Ecuador.

Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Peru, Argentina and Chile now vie with Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Namibia, South Africa and Nigeria to fill the vases of North America and Europe. More of our flowers, especially for St Valentine Day, are produced in Ecuador, Columbia or Kenya, grown by workers exposed to daily doses of damaging chemicals, all for less than 1p each. Two-thirds of workers - 80 per cent of whom are women - have skin disorders, breathing difficulties or neurological problems. Some also suffer miscarriages or give birth to deformed babies.

Ecuador is the leading exporter of roses in the world, mainly to the US and Western Europe. Heavily restricted chemicals banned in industrialized countries are used in rose cultivation. Deregulation has resulted in increased pollution to lakes, rivers and streams as more toxic chemicals are used in production: some, methylbromide for example, can degrade the ozone layer.

In the chilling words of a World Resources Institute report we read that in Costa Rica, greenhouse workers treat flowers and ornamental plants with extremely toxic insecticides and nematicides that include methyl parathion, terbufos, and aldicarb, all compounds whose use in North America is restricted because of the health hazard they pose. A wide array of other pesticides with known health risks is also used. These include fungicides which are suspected carcinogens, and herbicides such as paraquat, which is extremely toxic through any route of exposure.

Carbon footprint

A bouquet of flowers leaves a high lifecycle carbon footprint. Conservative estimates suggest that the air transportation to the United States alone creates 3.1 pounds of carbon per bouquet - and that does not include carbon released via constant refrigeration, by distribution within the US, in production, or in the manufacture of fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemical agents.

In Columbia, food that Colombia used to produce has to be imported because workers concentrate on flowers instead. The story is similar in Kenya, another major producer. Although flower workers still earn a fraction of their European counterparts, the pay in producing flowers is relatively good, so they abandon traditional crops to grow flowers. In Africa this labour shift has had a damaging effect on water tables. In some cases, irrigation canals necessary for other crops are neglected because everyone is working for the flower producer.

Only a fraction of the eventual price of flowers ever actually gets back to the workers, the vast majority of income goes to the dealers and middlemen. The growers get very little.

In 2002, The International Labour Organisation introduced an international code for the production of cut flowers (PDF) which covers workers rights to join trade unions, equality of treatment, the payment of a living wage, a maximum 48 hour working week, improved health and safety policies, a moratorium on pesticide reduction, an attempt to safeguard the environment, and an end to forced labour and child labour practices.

Mission statement

The trouble is the code is easily sidestepped while some clauses are so vague they are difficult to police. For example the environment code states: ‘Companies should make every effort to protect the environment and the residential areas, avoid pollution and implement sustainable use of natural resources (water, soil, air, etc.)’ The code is a worthy document, but it is a mission statement without teeth. But at least it represented a first attempts to improve conditions and impose regulation.

There are a number of standards that indicate producers have signed up to the ILO code of conduct. So if you see labels which show flowers are certified by FLP - Flower Label Program or Fairness in Flowers, you can be assured your rose is more likely to have been produced in a fair, safe and environmentally sound way. Me? Well I try and get my flowers from eco-sustainable websites, such as the numerous Fairtrade sites now flourishing on the web.

Mind you they do not come cheap.

But, if this is too late for this year, maybe next time you buy flowers, check the information on the supermarket label if I were you.

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Find out more

Roses smell like… highlighting the issues surrounding rose farming in Ecuador (powerpoint file)

Roses, Colombia, Exports, Trade Disputes and Drugs, by Julissa Castellanos

How to green your Valentine's Day

£2 Valentine flowers poverty alert






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