In 2007, just in time for Valentine's Day, then UK minister for International Development Hilary Benn told consumers to buy flowers flown in from Kenya, rather than European hothouse flowers. 'People want to buy ethically and do their bit for climate change, but often don't realise that they can support developing countries and reduce carbon emissions. Recent research shows that flowers flown from Africa can use less energy overall than those produced in Europe because they're not grown in heated greenhouses.' 'This is about social justice' he continued 'and making it easier, not harder, for African people to make a decent living.'
If you think there is something slightly sick-making about this melding of bleeding-heart liberalism and colonialism, you could be right.
The retail value of the cut flower industry in Britain is vast. It is worth more than £2 billion a year and, according to a 2007 War on Want report, Growing Pains, in the UK most of these, some 70 per cent, are sold through supermarkets - the highest proportion in Europe.
As consumers' green concerns have come to the fore, the cut flower industry has gone to great lengths recently to convince us that cut flowers can have low carbon footprints. Much of the data has focused on the benefits of growing flowers in naturally hot countries and then flying them into the UK, over growing them in cold countries in hothouses which can be very energy intensive.
Yet investigating this issue properly would certainly broaden the focus beyond narrow CO2 calculations - which do not tell the entire story of the sustainability or otherwise of any product - including cut flowers.
What is more the 'carbon footprint' of cut flowers encompasses much more than simply their transport from one country to another. Such figures must encompass the entire life cycle of the flower and include carbon released from fossil fuels used in cultivation, fertiliser production, refrigeration and transport, as well as the methane released from binned flowers.
In these days of dwindling water supplies it would be important to ask whether it is right to use water that could be a lifesaving resource either as a daily drink or as a means of irrigating food crops, for producing a luxury niche crop that is inedible. This is particularly important given that most cut flowers are grown in developing countries where poverty is endemic and access to clean water is problematic - especially as large corporations buy up land and its associated water rights. It would be important to highlight the impact of large monocultures on local biodiversity, which we know from studies into other monocultures to be deleterious.
From Africa with Love
Some 90 per cent of the cut flowers sold in the UK are imported, mostly from Colombia or Kenya (Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury's all source from one or both of these countries). So let's use Hilary Benn's planet-friendly Kenyan flowers as our base.
Most of the Kenyan floriculture industry is concentrated on the shores of Lake Naivasha - a complex and sensitive ecosystem. Until a couple of years ago the industry was growing steadily. However, a disputed election in 2007, followed by violence and unrest which spread quickly to Naivasha.
According to the 2008 report, 'Lake Naivasha: Withering Under the Assault of International Flower Vendors,' by Food & Water Watch and the Council of Canadians, the flower industry is so important to the Kenyan economy that in the face of such instability the army and police put most of their resources into guarding flower shipments instead of local people - so that the Valentine's Day delivery could reach European buyers in time. Since 2007, your Kenyan roses have come at a cost of more than 100 deaths and the displacement of more than 300,000 people.
Even the flower industry recognises the environmental degradation resulting from the overuse of water, pollution of the lake, and the increasing population in the area. While there are moves to make Fairtrade standards more widespread and reduce the environmental impact of the industry, the sheer volume of flowers growing in that region cannot fail to have a long-term impact. Since the floriculture industry moved in, Lake Naivasha has shrunk to half its original size and the water levels dropped three metres, its native hippos are threatened by the pollution in the lake and fish catches are dwindling (putting local fishermen out of business).
There are also gender issues and child labour issues - as well as low pay and little job security, the chemicals used in flower growing are a particular threat to a workforce made up largely of women and children.
Because cut flowers are grown in countries where little pesticide regulation exists, this encourages the use of obsolete and potentially dangerous chemicals. A vast range of pesticides, fertilisers and fumigants are used in producing cut flowers. Some of these, such as DDT, dieldrin, methyl bromide and methyl parathion are no longer in use, or deemed to dangerous to use, in the industrialised world.
While groups like the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) stress that conditions are better than they once were, there is still a long way to go in Kenya, Colombia and elsewhere. For instance, in 2005 the World Health Organization deemed 36 per cent of the chemicals applied by Floraverde plantations (that is Colombian plantations certified to meet specific social and environmental standards) as extremely or highly toxic. What is more the science of chemical mixtures has advanced considerably in recent years and we know that mixtures of chemicals such as pesticides can have a more potent adverse effect on health than single applications of single substances.
In Ethiopia for example recent data from the Ethiopian Agriculture Research Institute shows that 18 of the 96 insecticides and nematicides imported by the flower farms were not on the MPS-Code 2006 list (the list of pesticides registered in Ethiopia) and similarly for 19 of the 105 fungicides. The Pesticide Action Network believes these figures are likely to be underestimates.
And while most studies focus on workers in the developing world, the issues are just as relevant to growers in developed countries. For instance, data from the Netherlands' Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment shows that Dutch floral workers are often exposed to 60 times the recognized 'safe' level of these poisonous chemicals, often in an indoor situation, where residues and vapours may not dissipate. Similar concerns have been expressed about workers in the Californian flower industry.
A 2007 study by the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), found that more than 66 per cent of Ecuadorian and Colombian flower workers were plagued by work-related health problems, including skin rashes, respiratory problems, and eye problems, due to chronic exposure to toxic pesticides and fungicides.
ILRF, drawing on the work of Harvard School of Public Health researcher Philippe Grandjean, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2006, also found that: ‘flower workers experience higher-than-average rates of premature births, congenital malformations and miscarriages'.
Another study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2002 found that ‘over 50 percent of respondents who worked in fern/flower farms reported at least one of the symptoms of pesticide exposure - headache, dizziness, nausea, diarrhoea, skin eruptions, fainting and so on'.
According to Richard Wiles, vice president of research for the US Environmental Working Group, consumers are buying roses that, toxicity levels suggest, should be handled by workers wearing gloves. Wiles reports that pesticide residue on the petals of imported roses is fifty times that allowed on food imports.
Pesticide use has decreased somewhat in the years since that comment. But then again figures which measure reductions simply in terms of weight of pesticides per hectare can be misleading since they may not reflect the use of newer more powerful pesticides which are more active at lower doses.
It seems clear from the larger body of scientific reports that the environmental destruction that is inherent with the volume of cut-flowers produced in places like Lake Naivasha is neither improving quality of life nor protecting the environment for local people. In the face of this, a lower carbon footprint for shipping roses to the UK seems almost irrelevant.
Local and seasonal is not just for food
Most of us don't even think about where our flowers come from. But experts say that locally-grown flowers have similar advantages to locally produced food. They are for instance, fresher, and thus have a longer vase life. They may even smell nicer: many cut flower roses, for example, are being bred without scent to extend their vase life.
Today the British cut flower industry supplies about 10 per cent of the UK's cut flower needs. Just 10 years ago this figure was more than 20 per cent; 20 years ago it was 45 per cent.
However the recession might help change things in favour of a domestic cut flower industry. Earlier this year an article published in the journal Horticulture Week suggested that the unfavourable euro exchange rate was paying dividends for the British cut flower industry. Tesco, it said, had just announced that it was buying more from UK producers rather than the Dutch growers. This is good news but as long as retailers use market forces rather than ethics to determine what to buy, the tides can always shift back to imported flowers.
Once again it may be up to the consumer to lead the way.
Pat Thomas is a former editor of the Ecologist.