Sustainable Flowers, One Bouquet at a Time

| Advocacy, Sustainability

By Ayn Schmit, Wild Ones Front Range member and flower enthusiast, and Helen Skiba, owner, Farmette Flowers in Longmont

Why would Front Rangers passionate about native landscaping care about growing flowers for bouquets ourselves or supporting our local farmers who grow them? Have you ever wondered where that flower bouquet you picked up from the supermarket came from, or the bouquet you had delivered for a friend’s birthday from the local florist? Many of us, gardeners and non-gardeners alike, have become educated about the impacts of factory farming and the benefits of acquiring our food from local food systems and farmers markets. Those benefits include the use of more sustainable farming practices, healthier and more nutritious food, and investing our dollars in ways that have greater local economic benefit. So why wouldn’t we want to do the same when it comes to the cut flowers that brighten our homes and bring a smile to the faces of our loved ones? Most of us do purchase flowers at some point. The fact is that the commercial flower industry has enormous ecological and social impacts, and we as champions of sustainable gardening need to educate one another about those impacts and make choices that promote local and regenerative flower production.

Let’s first take a look at some of the environmental and social consequences of the $40 billion global commercial flower industry. According to a 2016 article by a World Resources Institute researcher, since the 1990’s flower production has shifted to developing countries where climate is favorable and labor costs lower. Columbia, Ecuador, Kenya, and Ethiopia are now the largest producers. Eighty percent of flowers sold in the U.S. are imported, with most of those coming from South America—350 million cut flowers are imported to the U.S. annually! Even American-grown flowers are problematic. I’ll touch on some of the key reasons that sustainability-minded gardeners should be concerned about commercially-grown flowers.

Water use: It won’t surprise Front Range gardeners that commercial flower production requires significant amounts of water. For example, cut flowers account for 45 percent of Kenya’s virtual water exports, reducing water available for crops like maize that are critical to food security. Lake Naivasha in the floriculture area of Kenya has shrunk significantly as irrigation for flower production has increased, impacting local drinking water supplies and aquatic organisms dependent on the lake. 

Pesticide use and human exposure: It also won’t surprise you that floriculture requires significant fertilizer and pesticide inputs to produce those perfect blooms. Because flowers are not edible crops, they are exempted from regulatory limits on pesticide residues, despite having as much as 50 times the amount of a given pesticide allowed on food crops. And beyond the obvious ecological impact of that pesticide use, exposure to pesticide residues among floriculture workers and florists is a big concern. Studies have shown that floriculture workers’ health is deeply impacted by the pesticides omnipresent in their workplaces. Genetic damage was reported in 71 percent of cut flower workers worldwide. A 2017 study of European florists found more than 100 pesticides in commercial flower bouquets being handled by florists, and that residue of many of those pesticides were being taken up through florists’ skin. Flowers imported into the U.S. are not tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for pesticide residues; however, USDA will reject an entire shipment if one insect is found. This creates an enormous incentive for over-application of pesticides by foreign floriculture companies.

As I mentioned, buying flowers grown in the U.S. may not be the solution. A draft analysis of U.S.-grown roses by the Environmental Working Group found a dozen pesticides in their small sample of bouquets, including two that EPA lists as probable carcinogens; one was detected at a level 50 times higher than the amount allowed in food. Ornamental crops, including cut flowers, ranked 5th among all crops in the number of documented worker pesticide poisonings in California in a 1999 study.

Climate change impacts: Because so much of cut flower production occurs far from wealthy markets in the U.S., Japan, and other developed countries, there is an enormous carbon footprint created by the need for long-distance refrigerated shipping to keep your blooms fresh. The International Council on Clean Transportation calculated that the 4 billion (yup, billion) roses imported to the US from Columbia in January and February produced 360,000 metric tons of CO2 just to make it to the US this doesn’t include CO2 produced during growing or during refrigerated shipping and storage in the US. According to the EPA, that is the equivalent of nearly 78,300 cars driven for a year. One 2007 study looking at  cut flowers grown in Kenya and the Netherlands for sale in Britain found that each kilogram of roses produced 27.3 kilograms of CO2, a carbon footprint greater than that of beef. 

In sum, mass produced flowers diminish local water resources, impact ecological and worker health, and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. So as conscientious Westerners trying to protect our native landscapes and ecology, is there a way for us to enjoy the beauty and fragrance of fresh cut flowers in our lives? The good news is yes! Here are some approaches to consider. Please share this information with your friends, families and local communities to get the word out there.

Support your local regenerative or small-scale flower farmer: When you find a local flower grower at a farmer’s market, ask if you can visit the farm. Ask questions about the practices that are most important to you: Are workers well-compensated? Low or no pesticide use? Practices that improve soil health like cover cropping, perennial plantings, and no-till farming? A regenerative or progressive flower farm at the height of the season will look unimaginably diverse, both in flowers and in bird, insect, and invertebrate life. Ask your flower farmer what they are doing to reduce waste, save water, preserve soil carbon, and reduce their carbon emissions. Now imagine asking these questions of a King Soopers floral department — you would only get blank stares. The only way to know for sure how your flowers are grown is to see for yourself. However, remember that flower farmers work just as hard as vegetable or animal farmers. Offer something in return for their time, whether purchasing their flowers, joining a workshop, or simply paying for a farm tour.