Love is in the air. The sweet scents of red roses are filling storefronts in anticipation of Valentine’s Day next Saturday.
A flower seems a perfect gift for (or from) an eco-conscious woman like you. Just because it’s a plant doesn’t mean it’s ecological, though. There’s a thorny side, unfortunately, to the beautiful bloom.
To get the dirt on your flowers, let me invite you to the U.S.’s second biggest rose-exporting country and my home: Colombia.
A flight over the Andes brings us to the flowerbeds, invisible under polyethylene film. Rows of plastic hoop houses have taken over the fields where potatoes and blackberries once grew. Flower greenhouses surround the Bogotá and Rionegro airports, serving Colombia’s two biggest cities, where they’re ready to fly the flowers at least 2,500 miles to reach American florists.
Consumption of fuels for air and ground transportation, use of energy to run plane and truck refrigerators, and the heavy carbon footprint this creates are just the tail end of the environmental impact in a rose’s journey from seed to vase.
Thirsty flowers are depleting aquifers around Colombia’s capital that other farms (ones growing food for subsistence) and the city’s 8 million inhabitants also rely on.
The delicate petals have to ward off rose beetles and rose slugs, not to mention common pests like aphids and mites. To ensure that the valuable roses are of perfect export-quality, they are sprayed with an onslaught of agrochemicals: pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. The United States has banned 20% of these chemicals, yet readily imports the toxic roses.
Roses are usually grown in mountainous areas, which are also the sources of water for the lowland areas. Pesticide runoff from flower greenhouses has been shown to not only pollute water sources, but also persist in the soil at deeper levels than agrochemicals employed on other crops.
It’s not just the environment that gets poisoned. The workers, those invisible hands that clip your rose at the calculated moment to arrive in full bloom on Valentine’s Day, breathe the hazardous fumes inside the greenhouse. Use of personal protection equipment is laxly enforced and worker complaints of persistent headaches, sore throats, and respiratory problems are usually ignored.
Finally, the roses arrive in your sweetheart’s hands, smothered in plastic sleeves and cellophane flower wrap, stuck into bricks of floral foam, and encased in cardboard delivery boxes. That’s a lot of solid waste to be tossed into the trash in the name of love.
I personally know people inside the flower industry, everywhere from minimal-wage workers inside the greenhouses near Bogota, Colombia to affluent businessmen running a flower export business near Quito, Ecuador. I want to support floriculture like I do coffee as an export industry (as opposed to, say, cocaine), but not when it’s grown in these conditions.
The pretty petals come at a hefty environmental price, but fortunately you don’t have to pay much more to buy responsibly grown roses. So ask your sweetie to send you one that’s certified organic (protects the land) and/or sustainable (protects the workers too).
Certified doesn’t have to be costly. In fact, it’s only $5 more. The most classic romantic gift, a bouquet of a dozen long-stemmed red roses, is $44.99 at a conventional supplier [http://www.1800flowers.com/farm-fresh-roses-142433?categoryId=400077327] or $49.95 if EcoBloom certified [http://www.organicbouquet.com/p_4/EcoBlooms/Flowers/Roses/red-roses-dozen.html?subCatId=155].
Or, instead of sending a snipped off stem, ask your Valentine to send you seeds, plant a flower, or start a houseplant (we’ll be sending you gardening tips soon). Here’s to keeping the love alive longer!
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Carrie is an environmental educator, anthropologist, and translator. She took her passions for ecological, health, and women’s rights advocacy from the offices of Washington, D.C. to the streets of South America. Now in Colombia, she is slowly opening women’s eyes to the wonders of “la copita de luna” (Moon Cup) and Keepers.