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.