Valentine’s Day is approaching, and I hope my wife doesn’t read this post. I am annually declared a Scrooge around Valentine’s Day due to my perspective on both the cut flower industry and the greeting card industry.
A bouquet of flowers is beautiful, although I must admit to being more fond of the chocolate side of the holiday (which has its own issues, I know, but you can write your own blog post about that). The environmental impact of the flower industry, however, makes me wilt. Most flowers are imported to the U.S. from South America, and to Europe from Africa. There is obviously a huge carbon impact from flying them, as well as the additional refrigeration they need every step of the way. Then there is the fact that the flowers are mostly grown in countries that do not have the same pesticide controls as the U.S. and Europe, so DDT and other nasties (mostly exported to the developing world by U.S. companies who lost their local market when those chemicals were deemed too toxic to use) are used with abandon to make sure the petals are perfect when they arrive at the store. Imagine working in a closed, greenhouse environment with these chemicals! http://kenvironews.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/behind-the-label-cut-flowers/
There are some good things about the flower industry. Most importantly, we less-than-perfect men can often use some help when seeking romance or forgiveness. Secondly, it is a great foreign income earner for the countries where they are grown (as the graph on the right shows, they were bringing about $35 million dollars into Uganda in 2005, and even more now). They also tend to employ women (over 85% of the flower workforce in Uganda), and it is always favorable to put money in the hands of women. And at least here in Uganda, there is a fairly strong labor union among flower-industry workers and they have been able to negotiate for some rights and improvements in working conditions. http://ipsnews.net/africa/nota.asp?idnews=38994
It is still incredibly hard on the environment, though. Being a very water-intensive industry (requiring about 50,000 litres of water per hectare per day – http://data.mtti.go.ug/docs/cut_flowers.pdf), the greenhouses are often placed near wetlands, or the wetlands are actually filled (contrary to Uganda’s wetlands protection laws) to create land for the greenhouses. The photo above is one I took flying over the area between Kampala and Entebbe, which includes Lutembe Bay, a critically important area for the migration of millions of waterfowl. Beyond the damage done by filling the wetlands, it is nearly impossible to keep the pesticides from leaking into the surrounding water.
There are options. Gather a bouquet of wildflowers if you live in a place where they grow year-round. Wrap a red satin ribbon around some evergreen boughs. Shop at stores that sell organically grown flowers. Change the culture so that it is ok to give and receive roses that have a few brown spots on the petals because it may have saved the life of a greenhouse worker who wasn’t exposed to quite so many chemicals.
But don’t tell your wife that I suggested these things. I may be a Scrooge, but I’m not stupid. What will I be giving my wife for Valentine’s Day? A dozen perfect red roses.