Not So Rosy: The Environmental Cost of Flowers

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Have you ever considered the environmental cost of a bouquet of flowers? (Photo credit: Creatas/Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

Flowers are an important part of many cultures. They are used at ceremonies and holidays, and given to honor someone for a significant achievement or for his or her special day. Many people buy flowers to mark an occasion or simply to decorate their homes without giving a thought about where the blooms came from. What is the environmental cost of flowers?

Increasingly, flowers sold in the United States are not grown locally. About 70% of all cut flowers sold in the U.S. originate in Columbia. Other countries that ship flowers to the United States include Ecuador, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. Climates in these countries are well-suited for the floral industry, where mass amounts of flowers are grown under optimal conditions in fields and greenhouses year round. There often are fewer environmental and bureaucratic regulations for producers to deal with in these developing nations, as they are eager to attract industry. Labor and land is also cheaper, making it less expensive to grow flowers and ship them long distances than to grow them on United States soil.

The floral market is booming not just in the U.S. but also across Europe and Asia, which makes producing flowers an attractive business for impoverished nations. It brings money to their economies and provides many jobs, particularly to women. The news is not all good, however. Environmental groups and other agencies are becoming increasingly aware that the long-term environmental cost of growing flowers may be greater than the short-term benefits to the communities in which they are grown. Growing flowers takes enormous amounts of water, a fact that has become especially evident in Kenya. Lake Naivasha is a water source for many rose farms there. The floral industry has brought hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to the area, and a lake once known for its pristine landscape has become depleted through flower farm practices and workers’ needs. The already stressed resources nearly collapsed the entire Kenyan floral industry in 2009 when an extended drought added to the desertification of the lake. Today, a water tax has been instituted to help restore the ecological balance of the region. The picture is not rosy, however. There have been few scientific studies of the water quality of Lake Naivasha, but researchers and environmental groups alike fear that the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides needed to produce roses are found in hazardous quantities in the lake. In other countries, too, people are starting to question the wisdom of draining water resources to produce flowers that are then exported. A flower is mostly water, after all. Some communities have to get their water from miles away, saving water nearby for floriculture irrigation systems. Local residents and wildlife may be suffering for a profit they will never enjoy themselves.

Columbia is one country where the chemical contamination of the water table is well known. Chemicals that are banned in the United States are used in Columbia regularly. Flower growing requires many more chemicals than food farming. Consumer demand requires blemish-free flowers, and U.S. Customs will inspect and either destroy or re-export any shipments that contain pests. Water contamination occurs through irrigation runoff, the rinsing of barrels holding chemicals, and the outright dumping of obsolete chemicals into rivers. Fish and other freshwater and marine life at minimum store the toxins in their tissues and may die off in large numbers. Algae blooms caused by excess fertilizers in waterways block light from penetrating below the water surface, killing aquatic plants and affecting entire aquatic ecosystems. Contaminated waters also cause a zone of contaminated soil, as does the dumping of old greenhouse structures and chemical containers. Beneficial soil organisms die of exposure to fertilizers and pesticides. Cattle have been poisoned by being fed rejected flowers laced with chemicals, and both wildlife and livestock have suffered by eating plants growing in contaminated soil. In Ecuador, water pollution has caused the extinction of several species of plants and animals. Air pollution also occurs through the spraying of urea as a fertilizer, as ammonia mixes with water and is suspended in the atmosphere.

Added to the environmental problems of producing flowers are the environmental effects of shipping them worldwide and the packaging waste they generate. Quick and cold shipment is paramount when the product is as perishable as a flower. Airfreight and refrigerated trucks both emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, which have been implicated in global climate change. Plastic and cardboard trays and boxes can themselves be contaminated with the chemicals applied to the flowers. The next time you see a vase of flowers, consider where the flowers likely came from. What was the environmental cost of getting them into that vase?

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