Though beautiful in shape, color, and sentiment, the price of cut flowers comes at a high environmental cost; to start, in the United States, 75 percent of them are imported. Here, environmental journalist Janice Cantieri looks at the multibillion-dollar, global industry that has shifted from domestic to international production and the long-term carbon consequence of a temporary gesture.
People use flowers to express love, celebration, sorrow, grief, and gratitude. But before they reach a kitchen counter, most flowers in the United States travel between 1,500 to over 4,000 miles in refrigerated planes, boats, and trucks before they’re sold at grocery stores across the country—a significant environmental footprint for a product whose beauty lasts only a few weeks.
About 75 percent of cut flowers sold in the United States originate in Colombia, according to a 2015 report from the U.S.D.A. Foreign Agricultural Service. The Netherlands is still the world’s largest producer of cut flowers, but the multibillion-dollar, global industry has rapidly shifted from domestic production to importing flowers from equatorial countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Kenya, and Ethiopia.
“Cut roses at one time were grown in Michigan and New York state because temperatures were low and they were close to metropolitan markets. Then, it was realized that temperatures in Colorado and California were conducive to rose and carnation production,” said Terril Nell, former professor at the University of Florida and former president of the Society of American Florists.
Eventually, growers recognized that the climate along the mountainous regions in equatorial countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and Kenya, had ideal temperature and sunlight, Nell said. These areas had enough water and labor, and with air freight, flowers could be shipped north to markets quickly.
COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges for growers and florists this year that have significantly disrupted the industry. With weddings cancelled and essential businesses shut down, many growers have been forced to throw away the stems they’ve been growing all season. An estimated 400 million flowers were destroyed in the Netherlands in March alone, according to The New York Times.
Struggling florists rushed to donate their supply to nursing homes or churches before they wilted. Vendors, florists, and growers around the world are suffering from decreased demand. Growers in Kenya, Colombia, and Ecuador have had to lay farmworkers off or reduce their hours to survive the losses. While this is an extremely difficult time for the industry, the pandemic has created an opportunity to reexamine how our society operates, how our actions impact the world around us, and how we can rebuild in a more sustainable way.
Flower farmers and florists alike are sharing remarkable stories of resilience as they cope with the new uncertainty in floral agriculture and the floral marketplace. The COVID-19 pandemic hit studio, wedding, and event florists hard, which, in turn, affected the flower farmers who supply them. But, as Debra Prinzing, author of The 50 Mile Bouquet and one of the founders of the U.S. slow flowers movement, sees it—the prospect of disappearing revenue inspired a number of creative solutions.
“Most flower farmers I’ve interviewed say they are selling every stem they can harvest (reports of huge increase in Mother’s Day floral sales is a perfect example). Rather than spending hours standing at a farmers’ market selling bunches and bouquets essentially ‘on spec,’ flower farmers have pivoted to pre-selling and direct-to-consumer through contact-free pickup on their farms or safe porch deliveries. Others have added online sales and are shipping their flowers for the first time.”
One of the best outcomes of the pandemic, Prinzing says, is the surge in demand for local flowers. As consumers are asking about the supply chain of the food they purchase, similarly, they realize the cost of transporting flowers from overseas.
During peak season in a typical year, 30 to 35 fully loaded planes fly from Bogotá to Miami each day to meet the demand of the U.S. market. Those flowers are then packed into refrigerated trucks and shipped to supermarkets across the country.
Leaders in the field differ on whether it’s more environmentally friendly to grow flowers in a country like Colombia or Kenya with ideal conditions and ship flowers via airplanes, sea freight, and refrigerated trucks—or to produce locally, where farmers may have to light or heat their greenhouses.
In response to environmental concerns, “slow flowers” movements have sprung up in the U.S. and Europe. Like the slow food movement, these growers and florists encourage shifting from large scale production to local, sustainable, and seasonal flower growing.
The Blooming Flower Import Industry
The U.S. began importing flowers from Colombia in 1965. Trade agreements like the 1991 Andean Trade Preference Act facilitated the influx of imports. The ATPA, intended to slow the drug trade, eliminated tariffs on imports, including cut flowers, from Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. The tariff-free flower trade was made permanent in 2012 with the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement.
Low-cost imports now supply nearly all of the flowers available at U.S. supermarkets. The Netherlands controls most of the European market, but Kenya supplied nearly 40 percent of Europe’s cut flowers in 2017.
Flower farms in equatorial nations provide important employment opportunities, especially for women, but they have a history of social and environmental challenges. Pesticide and water use in Kenya played a role in the drying up of Lake Naivasha and the die-offs of fish populations, according to a 2012 study by Emmanuel Awour.
Pesticide use also affects flower farm workers: a 1990 study on flower workers in Colombia found that they were exposed to 127 different types of pesticides and that female workers and the wives of male workers developed reproductive issues. A 2013 study found that while the global flower industry has taken steps to reduce pesticide exposure, many Colombian floriculture workers still face health risks because they are exposed to pesticides at levels above recommended limits. Another researcher documented significant developmental delays or deformities in the children of Ecuadorian flower farmers. Similar conditions were documented in Kenya in 2008.
Nell pointed out that pesticide use in Latin America has dropped in recent years.
“Pesticides have been very expensive, so they [flower growers] cannot afford them as they used to back in the 1970s,” he said. Instead, many farms have switched to integrated pest management, which involves monitoring for pests and only spraying affected areas.
“They have limited numbers of pesticides available anymore so they’re moving now to biological controls, whether it be the release of insects that will kill other insects, or a fungus that will kill a disease,” Nell said.
Carmen Parrado Moreno of Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano in Bogotá has done environmental life-cycle assessments for several types of flowers produced on Colombian farms. She says that farms have started to shift to more responsible water and pesticide use.
“The industry has evolved to better environmental behavior, not only because of market and consumers pressure, but because they have seen the high impact of the uses of pesticides when they are applied in an inefficient manner,” she said. “They lose money and [pesticides] affect soil and water, and affect the health of their workers, and therefore their production processes because of staff substitution and disabilities, or the degradation of soil as well.”
But even with reduced pesticide use, the main environmental impact from imported flowers occurs during the transportation of those flowers. In 2018, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection processed 7.1 billion stems—with 6.2 billion of those coming in through Miami alone. More flowers are now shipped by boat, but because roses are so delicate, many are still shipped by plane.
Parrado-Moreno analyzed the production and shipment of chrysanthemum stems to markets in Miami or London. She compared the impacts of flowers produced on a conventional farm with a Florverde-certified farm, a Colombian industry certification that requires growers to use slightly lower levels of pesticides. The carbon footprint of refrigeration and shipping once the flowers landed was not included in her assessment.
Regardless of environmental certification, the transportation footprint remained the same, she said.
“The biggest impacts are generated during transportation,” Parrado-Moreno said. “The Florverde certification seeks that the companies who have this signature have a better and more responsible environmental and social behavior. Nevertheless, the transport mechanism is the same and therefore, in this phase the impact was not reduced.”
Slow Flowers: Reviving Domestic Flower Farms
Even with the emissions from transportation, importing flowers may be more efficient than producing in a greenhouse that needs year-round heating or lighting, Nell said. In equatorial countries like Colombia or Kenya, “the climate is such that they do not use any heating or cooling, so there’s no energy going into production compared to what is done in other places in the U.S. and Europe,” he said.
But many flower growers in the States are practicing what’s known as season extension, says Prinzing. Season extension often involves planting flowers that can make it through the winter and ensuring their roots are established for springtime by planting in “high tunnels,” plastic greenhouses that trap natural heat. This allows growers to use little or no additional energy during production.
“Growers get the roots of ranunculus, anemones, and sometimes tulips and annuals established in October or November and they come on super early because they’ve already got them established,” Prinzing said. “Some markets like Texas or South Carolina can then have these lush, juicy flowers that everybody wants for Valentine’s Day, and they haven’t heated those greenhouses—but they had just enough protection to get that root or bulb established.”
Other growers heat their greenhouses for only a few months out of the year or use carbon-neutral or low carbon methods, she said.
“We have one Slow Flowers grower in Minnesota [Len Busch Roses] that’s been growing flowers in a cold climate for generations, and they heat their greenhouses with all of the chips from the City of Minneapolis’ arborists,” Prinzing said.
After speaking with hundreds of flower farmers across the U.S., Prinzing created an online directory in 2014 to link florists with local growers of organic, seasonal flowers. Physical markets are also connecting buyers and growers, like the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, which showcases local farms and facilitates trade with regional florists.
“When it became revealed to me that 80 percent of the cut flowers in the U.S. are imported, I was flabbergasted, and then I got angry,” she said. “I’m a gardener, I know I can grow all of these flowers, why are they being shipped here on a jumbo jet? The cost is not the price of the flowers, the cost is the damage to our environment.”
Wilting Away: Toxic Flower Waste
There is also an environmental impact when flowers are tossed away. In India, approximately 8,000,000 metric tons of flowers are dumped from temples into India’s rivers every year, according to a 2018 study. While it might not seem damaging to throw organic material back into nature, the flowers release high levels of pesticide and fertilizer residue, polluting the rivers.
People are working to address the issue through a process called “flowercycling.” PHOOL, a social enterprise based in the northern Indian city of Kanpur, hires manual scavengers—primarily women who survive by foraging through waste—to collect floral waste and turn it into incense, organic compost, and biodegradable packaging. Others have developed ways to use the flowers to create biofuel or to naturally dye clothing.
Several organizations in the U.S. are also addressing repurposing discarded flowers from weddings and galas before they reach landfills. Nonprofits like The Full Bloom, ReBloom, The Reflower Project, and Random Acts of Flowers rearrange and donate flowers that would have been thrown away for people in nursing homes, hospitals, and homeless shelters.
While a bouquet is a thoughtful gift from nature, purchasing flowers has complex environmental and social consequences. Perhaps a pandemic can offer an opportunity to reflect on how our decisions affect others and the planet in a conscious way. Or, at the very least, refocus how we show our gratitude for others on not just what comes from the heart but is homegrown, too.