Roses Are Red... And Ecologically Unsustainable?

photo by Lisa Kleger

Sarah Zimmerman is an undergraduate at Columbia University studying Sustainable Development and Human Rights, and she interned at GRACE in the spring of 2012. Originally from Philadelphia, Sarah is personally committed to GRACE’s mission of creating more transparency in the food system.

There is no expression of love more classic than a dozen red roses. Every Valentine’s Day, more than 100 million roses are sold in the United States. Since the Language of Flowers developed in the Victorian Era, they have signified passionate, romantic love, over time becoming one of the most iconic images of February 14th.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans planned on spending almost $2 billion last V-Day just on flowers, proof of a powerful industry with serious economic influence, and it has been this way for a long time. In the 17th century, the price of tulip bulbs rose drastically and then suddenly collapsed, leading to a wide scale economic downturn. It’s evident that even markets that sell frivolous objects can have intense effects on our economy and it stands to follow that the flower industry has enormous impact on our environment, too.

Today, 80% of roses in the US are imported from South America, most coming from Colombia and Ecuador where, thanks to relaxed environmental regulations, they're able to use more pesticides like DDT and methyl bromide, which impact local wildlife as well as the ozone layer. These pesticides also pollute waterways, rendering many local water sources toxic. 20% of the pesticides used in Ecuador have been restricted or outlawed in the US and Europe, yet we continue to import their products. The Department of Agriculture doesn’t regulate or require permits for cut flowers.

In countries like Ecuador and Colombia that rely heavily upon the cut flower industry for capital, we have seen deforestation and loss of biodiversity, to make room for more cultivation.

And it’s not just the environment that is impacted. Insecticides like DDT also have extremely serious health affects for the workers on flower farms. Pesticides have been linked to neurological defects, infertility and respiratory problems. In addition to health consequences, floriculturists in developing nations are often extremely underpaid, and almost always non-unionized.

If you're in Europe, it’s likely that your valentine will give you roses that originate in Kenya. While floriculture has meant a major economic upswing for the ailing country, it has also contributed to the degradation of some of the country’s most beautiful natural sites. Lake Naivasha, known for its flamingos, has seen falling water levels due to the flower industry’s overconsumption of water. In addition, runoff from fertilizer has disrupted the natural ecosystem of the lake, harming fish and birds that live there.

Countries like Ecuador and Colombia have seen the demand for their products rise, so they have continued to clear land to make room for more rose farms. In countries like these that rely heavily upon the cut flower industry for capital, we have seen deforestation and loss of biodiversity, so that the land can be better used for cultivation.

So, after the roses are grown and cut, how do they get to your local florist? Every day, 40,000 boxes of flowers arrive at Miami International Airport. According to the US Floriculture Industry, over 1.3 billion roses came through Miami in 2011, from Colombia and Ecuador alone. Of course, carbon emissions reflect this import obsession. Every Valentine’s Day, the roughly 100 million roses sold produce about 9,000 metric tons of carbon emissions.

While greener is often more expensive, a price check revealed that a dozen red roses from 1(800)Flowers costs $54.99, while at Red Carpet Florist, a VeriFlora certified company, the same product is $47.95.

The ecological impacts of floriculture are undeniably negative. There are greener options, however. Most importantly: buy local. This not only eliminates the CO2 emissions from transporting flowers from South America, but also supports small-scale farmers. Check out our Eat Well Guidefor locations of farmers' markets and stores that sell locally grown products near you!

You can also buy sustainably. VeriFlora, a new certification program, labels sustainably grown flowers for consumer awareness. To achieve certification, a farm must be both environmentally and socially responsible. And while greener is often more expensive, a quick price check revealed that a dozen red roses in a vase from 1-800-Flowers costs $54.99, while at Red Carpet Florist, a VeriFlora certified company, the same product is $47.95. The numbers say it all.

Arguably the best option—especially if your loved one has a green thumb—is giving live plants or even seeds. Spending time together planting (even just a windowbox) is much more romantic than getting a bouquet from some random bodega. The Hudson Valley Seed Library is a fantastic resource. They have their own farm in the Hudson Valley, where they grow, save and pack their seeds, all by hand, and their beautiful artisan packs “celebrate the beauty inherent in heirloom gardening.” Sweet, right?

Remember too, that flowers aren’t the only game in town. Organic wine, eco-friendly (and fair trade) chocolates and homemade Valentines (on recycled paper, naturally) all make great gifts. Whatever you do, show your loved one how much you care, about them and the environment. (We know where you can get some adorable e-cards!)