Seeing Red

Josh wasn’t the only one inspired to write about the first snow storm last February. The aught seven Valentine’s Day Blizzard, we are calling it. As the wind howled and snow drifted up in my driveway, I surfed the net to find a newslink to send to my scattered family.

Look at what’s happening here, I wanted to say. Instead, all I could find were stories about the roses that couldn’t be delivered.

Valentine Roses

Thousands and thousands of roses! Actually, 175 million to be more precise. In February! Where on earth did they come from?

Red flowers have a magical power to lift my spirits, and I often buy whatever is on sale, gently placing them on top of other indulgences — organic broccoli and local lettuce. Where, I wondered, do they come from, these spectacular flowers that are so tempting, and cheap, year round in the local stores?

So, I did a little research on cut flowers.

Over 80% of the flowers sold in the U.S. are now imported, mostly from Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica. (U.S. Rose production has declined 72% in the last ten years.) Kenya exports a huge amount of flowers — 80,000 tons of mostly roses in 2005 — but primarily to Europe and Japan.

I’m not qualified to analyze the economic question of why prices for the flowers and the produce we buy generally do not reflect the true cost of producing them. And the social and moral issues involved in relying on third world labor to produce our flowers is complicated by the fact that Ecuadorian economy, for example, is dependent on cut flowers as its primary cash crop.

The environmental costs involved in growing these flowers, however, are clear and well documented.

The issues are the same as for other kinds of industrialized agriculture: massive use of water, and often in areas where water is precious and a limited resource, high levels of pesticide use and worker exposure, release of chemicals and fertilizer runoff in local waterways and dependence on trucking and air transport to get the produce to market.

But for flowers, it doesn’t stop there. Flowers are carefully checked when they enter the US for pests, but not for toxic chemicals. Those flowers I put on top of the organic broccoli — they are toxic.

In addition to having been heavily sprayed with pesticides, just before they are shipped the flowers are dipped, immersed head first, in a bath of fungicide to assure that the flowers arrive without unsightly gray or brown blotches from botrytis, a common fungus.

“Workers, both children and adults, are exposed to pesticides and other chemicals that are illegal in the United States, and a small study by the International Labour Organization showed that only 22 percent of Ecuadorian flower companies trained their employees in the proper use of these chemicals.” This from Amy Stewart’s “Flower Confidential.”

So, I will add this to my list, getting longer all the time, of things I wish I could do something about.

Here are some things that I am doing.

  • I will give up buying my little bunches of imported red instant gratification and wait until the local growers sell carnations in January, which will be never.
  • I called the local supermarket flower manager and asked her to buy certified green grown flowers whenever possible and mark them so people would know. She urged me to call her boss at corporate headquarters and share my concerns. I haven’t done that yet.
  • I talked to the produce manager at the local food coop about my concerns. She agreed that it’s an issue and has since decided only to carry green grown or local flowers and plants.
  • I’m reading up on forcing bulbs in the house in the winter. It’s not instant but they will last longer when they finally do bloom.
  • This summer, I will dry flowers, although the color is definitely not the same, especially reds.
  • I’m talking to people about the possibility (economics) of starting a local coop greenhouse that could go through the winter.
  • My dream project would be to create a community flower garden where neighbors could work together in the summer to grow fragrant local species of flowers for cutting, drying and giving away to whoever needs cheering up.
  • And, I’m baking a cake for next Valentine’s Day. If you see a cake pan shaped like a rose, let me know.