What’s the real cost of overseas grown cut flowers?
Some of the issues raised here are a little depressing, so let’s start on a bright note with a song made famous by Max Bygraves
“When it’s spring again I’ll bring again tulips from Amsterdam, with a heart that’s true I’ll give to you Tulips from Amsterdam………………”
No one can argue with the joy some flowers can bring, particularly in the times when flowers were just seasonal, like Max’s tulips in the spring, followed by roses, then into the summer blooms of gladioli and dahlias, followed by the autumn russets and winter berries.
The problem is that flower growers have decided that we should no longer have to wait for our seasonal blooms as they have found locations and growing techniques that can provide us with just about any type of flower at any time of year. This is all well and good but means that flowers are now shipped around the globe from warmer countries or grown in more local hothouses requiring huge quantities of energy and water
The issues in Kenya
Kenya is a good case study as many of the flowers you see on garage forecourts and in supermarkets will have originated in the east African equatorial country. Ten or so years ago the then UK minister for International Development encouraged buyers to source cut flowers from Kenya rather than the usual European markets like Holland.
His view was that people wanted to buy ethically and do their bit for climate change whilst seemingly supporting developing countries and reducing carbon emissions. 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. His view was also that there was an element of social justice by making it easier for African people to make a decent living.
More recently consumers' environmental concerns have come to the fore, and 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.
A closer investigation shows that whilst the carbon footprint of flowers grown in Kenya might be seemingly low, it should not be looked at in isolation of other environmental factors. Lake Naivasha is the main rose growing are in Kenya and is affected by many problems. In the UK the rose is an icon representing love, beauty and even desperation when Valentine’s Day arrives, but those who are not involved in flower production but live near and depend on the lake in Naivasha hold a very different view
Over the last 40 years Kenya has become the largest exporter of flowers to Europe. Unfortunately unsustainable farming practices, pollution, habitat loss, declining wildlife numbers and an increased human population have all attributed to the serious problems caused by the flower farm industry in Lake Naivasha.
The farms now cover huge tracts of land alongside the lake and these giant farms pump water directly from the lake into their greenhouses at an alarming rate which is much greater than the lake can replenish itself. Since the start of flower farming the lake has lost four of its five metre water depth.
The lake is further damaged with all the runoff of pesticides and chemicals used to grow these flowers which is drained right back into the lake. The once crystal clear waters have now turned a murky brown due to the toxic runoffs which includes sewage waste from the town. The town has grown from 7000 to nearly 500,000 in the last 40 years, and many of these new residents are economic migrants who have failed to integrate with the indigenous people and this has caused many social tensions.
The lake was one of the top bird-watching sites in Africa and attracted high spending tourists, but as the birds disappear so will the wealthy visitors. The surge in population has created many unplanned settlements that lack proper waste and sanitation control. The waste is often drained right back into the lake.
All this might put you off buying your Kenyan grown flowers, but it is an important industry for those that work in it. As with the supply and demand of cheap exotic fruit and vegetables year round, we now demand the same from our floral bouquets. A scheme similar to Fairtrade, but for non-foods called the Ethical Trading Initiative may be a way forward and is slowly establishing itself in the flower industry. If the supply of flowers was not driven so much by price, then perhaps workers’ conditions and pay and environmental impact could be addressed by more proactive but costly management. One thing is for sure: we need to act quickly to protect this valuable and vital ecosystem and the lives of those that work to put our flowers in our vases.