The High Cost of Cheap Flowers

by David on February 11, 2013

Greetings cherished readers and welcome to a very special Valentine’s Day Edition of Mind the Science Gap! In honor of the festival of love, some of the other MTSG writers and I will be blogging about topics related to the upcoming holiday. As I drew the short straw, I have been tasked with discussing the manliest of all Valentine’s Day accouterments: Flowers.


Men, men, men,men, manly men, men, men

If you’re like approximately one third of Americans (36.6%, to be precise), you will give your sweetie some flowers as an expression of your affection, contributing to the nearly two billion dollars that the floricultural industry will make off Valentine’s Day.

But have you ever considered where those rosies and posies came from?

Well, in 2010, the vast majority (71%) of flowers sold in the United States were imported, mostly from Colombia, Ecuador, and the Netherlands. It may not surprise you that the Netherlands were shipping flowers over – what with their historical obsession with tulips – but you might be interested to know that they only accounted for about 6% of the fresh cut flowers sold in the US. According to the Society of American Florists, in 2010, a whopping 64% of imported flowers came from Colombia and another 17% came from Ecuador. The combination of a perfect growing climate and low labor costs have made growing operations in Colombia and Ecuador the primary sources of American flowers since the 1970s. Basically, if you’ve purchased flowers from any business that wasn’t growing them nearby, you probably bought flowers from one of those two countries.

The flowers depicted here are better-traveled than the author of this post

So what? We import all kinds of things from everywhere, right? Well, even if you ignore the grievous worker abuses that have been associated with the global flower market (which you shouldn’t, and they are enumerated in many other excellent missives), you can’t really ignore the environmental and public health problems associated with the industry.

For one thing, flowers, being objects of mere aesthetic consequence, require significantly more pesticides than food crops, since the slightest blemish will render them worthless. So, naturally, many growers in the floriculture industry liberally douse their crops to keep them pretty and pest-free. As a consequence, the pesticides tend to run off into the lakes and streams, entering the water table and wreaking havoc on local ecologies. At least one study found a lingering concentration of DDE (a breakdown product of DDT, the villainous pesticide from Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring”) contaminating soil that hadn’t been farmed in decades – a frightening reminder of the legacy of pesticide use. Interestingly, due to free trade agreements with Colombia and Ecuador, flowers entering the United States are only inspected to ensure the absence of agricultural pests, and are never measured for pesticide levels of any kind.

Unsurprisingly, all this pesticide use can be rather perilous for the workers, who have faced a myriad of difficulties in the struggle for fair labor conditions (and many of whom still do). Regulation of pesticide use is difficult to enforce in the rural and mountainous regions where the flowers are grown, so some companies flout the laws regularly, using banned and unregistered toxins to control pests. This is all the more troubling when one considers the dangers to health and environment associated with using legal pesticides, much less the illicit ones.

This blog post is certified USDA Organic, and gluten-free

Many of the legal pesticides are organophosphates (OP), which belong to a diverse group of chemical compounds that have a myriad of uses, from fuel additives and flame retardants, to chemical warfare agents and pesticides. Problematically, the organophosphates used for those last two functions tend to have one thing in common: they often inhibit acetylcholinesterase (AChE). AChE is responsible for breaking down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is used by cells in the nervous system to communicate to each other. If AChE can’t do its job, abnormal amounts of acetylcholine can build up and over-stimulate nerve cells until they are damaged or dead. It’s kind of like someone tossing you a rock with a note tied to it: it’s pretty easy to catch and read a note attached to a rock  or two at a time, but if all of a sudden there are hundreds of rocks flying at you, there could be problems.

Indeed, there often are problems associated with OP use, and according to one study, OP and carbamate insecticides accounted for 71% of pesticide-related poisonings Ecuador between 2001 and 2007. Symptoms of OP toxicity include nausea, headache, abdominal pain and dizziness, but may progress to muscle weakness, peripheral nerve damage – and at high doses, death. Children are at a higher risk for all of these effects, and several studies have indicated a link between in utero exposure to OPs and neurodevelopment. Perhaps even more disconcerting, it’s possible that kids don’t even need to go to the flower ranch to be exposed to higher pesticide levels–because parents can bring it home on their clothes.

In recent years, the Organic and Fair Trade movements have lead to an increased number of firms accepting Voluntary Environmental Agreements so that they can improve their market share – after all, consumers will pay a premium price for ethically-sourced goods. Also, the growth of unions has helped the situation, and worker-led strikes on production have lead to improved labor conditions in some cases. Even so, many issues of environmental health and safety remain unresolved.

Taken together, all this bad news suggests that if you’re not buying organic, fair-trade certified flowers (which, by the way, is definitely a thing that you can do)… then you might want to at least consider doing that. The international floriculture market (which is significantly more intricate than I’ve presented it, especially since I didn’t even talk about Africa) is just as complex, peculiar, and prone to abuse as any international commodity market, so we must be wary that we don’t dismiss the potential for human and environmental harm just because it’s, well, flowers.

So this Valentine’s day,  try to be original when you show your sweetie how much you really love them and… maybe whittle a dinosaur out of a bar of soap, or make home-made chocolate, or write them a song, or something. Flowers are old hat, anyway.

Yeah, you could totally make a Stegosaurus out of one of those.

Ellie K February 11, 2013 at 9:06 am

This is my favourite post so far – a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-and-action-provoking read. Nice one!

David February 11, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Oh man, that’s so nice of you! I’m glad you liked it!

Virginia Levin February 11, 2013 at 10:32 am

Very insightful. When we dispose of these poisonous flowers we have imported those toxins to our environment .OUCH! Very readable too.

David February 11, 2013 at 3:14 pm

That’s a really interesting point. I confess that I hadn’t even thought about that angle of it, but yeah, basically we’re importing a lot of pesticides this way. I’m pleased that you liked the article!

David Reedy February 11, 2013 at 11:11 am

Insightful and a reminder of the long distance impact our actions can have.

David February 11, 2013 at 3:24 pm

If you’re interested, there are a number of NGOs working to ameliorate some of these issues,, being but one. Thanks for the comment!

Reva Berman February 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm

This is so interesting! I honestly never really thought about where the flowers are coming from and what kind of damage the industry is doing for the workers and environment. Very eye opening, thank you for sharing!

David February 11, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I have to say that I was completely taken aback while I was researching this article – I had no idea either. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

Angela February 11, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Thank you for this timely post! It also made me wonder about the post-buy, post-enjoyment life of flowers. Presumably the residue will leak back into US ground water through compost heaps and waste dumps?
I have to say that I had a few problems with the second half of the post. Because you start in a light, jokey style, the jump to scientific vocabulary jars pretty strongly. Perhaps you could experiment more with putting the scientific information and research that you want to get across into the same style. For inspiration for this particular topic, you could draw on examples from some of the literature you are citing. Another source could be blogs such as Bad Science.

David February 12, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Thanks for the comment, Angela! I do agree, a life-cycle analysis of the commercial flower industry would probably be very interesting. As to the shift in tone in the second half of the post, I think you’re right, there is a bit of an abrupt transition. It’s partially intentional, since it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss some of the subject matter in the second half of the post (pesticide-induced neuropathies, worker abuses, ect.) in the lighthearted style. Even so, I probably could have transitioned a bit better. It’s a balancing act! And one that I will hopefully get better at with practice :)

Dana Dolinoy February 11, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Dear David – very cool topic. I’m sending to my husband to ponder right now. An envrionmentally friendly valentines day sounds like a fun new challenge!

David February 12, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Hi Dana, I’m glad you liked it! As for an environmentally-friendly Valentine’s idea, I don’t know of any environmental costs associated with Salsa Dancing…

Chris March 6, 2013 at 8:49 am

I read this post weeks ago but I am back to say that it has caused me to make a small change. I threw my dead Valentine flowers in the trash. Normally I would have put them in my backyard compost. I compost (successfully) to enrich my own flower gardens. I don’t use any chemicals in the garden or on the lawn. I never thought about the chemicals in the store bought flowers.
Thanks for the info.

David March 9, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Thanks for the comment!

Seleen April 15, 2013 at 8:32 am

Thanks for bringing this to light, David. I arrange flowers for our church and had no idea that such a peaceful activity could be dangerous to myself and especially the growers.

David April 15, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Seleen. It is my hope that by increasing awareness about these problems with the flower industry, we might be able to made a difference.

Some good ways to continue enjoying flowers are: ensuring that you’re purchasing fair-trade, organic flowers, purchasing from local growers (which also supports the local economy), or even growing your own! Admittedly, these are more time-consuming and costly, but the net benefit is substantial.

Thanks for reading!

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