Flowers are a symbolic gift that is purchased and gifted across the world to commemorate and commiserate, there are, however, several environmental impacts associated with mass-produced flowers.
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The scale of the flower industry
The global flower production industry (the floricultural industry) is worth approximately €64.5 billion and is typically limited to socioeconomically developed countries such as the US and European countries.
The UK and the USA represent a large market for cut flowers. In Europe, the annual consumption exceeded €2.5 billion. Between 2011 and 2015 and the annual import of roses (the most popular flour in the continent) increased from €161bn to €182bn, comprising ~25% of all imported flowers sold.
The majority of imported flowers are sourced from the Netherlands, but increasingly flowers are grown in and imported from, less economically developed countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, due to favorable climatic conditions that facilitate year-round production, and cheaper labor costs.
Kenya and Ethiopia are among the top producer countries which include Ecuador and Sri Lanka. The largest single producer of cut flowers globally, however, is Colombia, which exported an estimated 660 million flowers in 2020. China is also an up-and-coming producer.
The demand for flowers is year-round and follows a rapid and episodic pattern which is responsible for the large environmental footprint the industry generates. Flowers must get to the end-consumer between three and five days after being harvested; there is a large economic consequence associated with not doing so, with flowers losing 15% of their value per additional day in transit.
Carbon emissions associated with the flower industry
For producers based in the northern hemisphere, large energy inputs are required for the intensive farming of fresh flowers, fueled by consumer demand. Countries such as the Netherlands must grow their flowers in greenhouses due to the cold climate and year-round cloud cover. Greenhouses are typically heated using non-renewable carbon sources and release large amounts of carbon dioxide.
Beyond production, the carbon dioxide output is exacerbated by transportation and storage processes. The carbon footprint is also not associated with increased travel distances; a study comparing the carbon footprint of flowers exported from the Netherlands as compared to Kenya demonstrated that more carbon emissions were associated with the Netherland-sourced flowers.
This discrepancy is attributed to the higher carbon cost associated with the production phase in the Netherlands. Overall, the Netherlands generates a 6-fold greater carbon emission for roses compared with Kenya.
Pesticides use and the environmental impact associated with the flower industry
Flowers are not subject to the same regulatory conditions imposed on growers of edible crops. As such, pesticide use is much higher for flower production; the combination of pesticides used to sustain rapid and abundant growth results in local environmental issues. This excessive use of pesticides, as well as herbicides, results in their entry into local soil, and subsequent soil leaching into groundwater promotes eutrophication.
The dominant environmental consequences of eutrophication includes; increased suspended particles (due to widespread macroalgal blooming), decreased water clarity and quality, and increased precipitation frequency that leads to the destruction of benthic habitat (habitats located at the lowest level of a body of water) by shading of vegetation underneath.
An additional effect of pesticide use is a sharp decline in species such as honey and resin beans as well as other pollinators. Due to the proximity with flowering plants, several pollinators a vulnerable to chronic exposure to complex mixtures of pesticides. Due to the contamination of pollen, neonicotinoids, a highly potent pesticide, have been found in ~75% of honey samples collect worldwide.
Pesticides also reduce the biodiversity of agricultural landscapes, and this form of crop management has detrimental outcomes on farming practices long-term, as the lack of biodiversity directly affects soil resilience.
Water-intensive demands of the flower industry
Flowers have a high water demand; the water footprint of one rose flower is estimated to be 7–13 liters. Associated with the energy-demanding export of flowers is additional water export. This has detrimental effects in countries such as Kenya, in which declines in local lake levels can be attributed to commercial farming in the local geography.
In Kenya, the water export from the Lake Naivasha Basin was 16 mm3 /year between 1996-2005. This lake serves as an essential water source for many flower farms in Kenya owing to its position at high altitude and high sunshine availability alongside serving as an abundant source of water. In addition, the lake is associated with the deterioration of the lake’s biodiversity due to changes in pH associated with pesticide use as well as falling water levels.
Floriculture accounts for 45% of virtual water exports from Kenya which augments the strain on Kenya, and other water-poor countries. This strain is felt by the population and additional causes unfair water distribution among industries.
In addition to environmental impacts, there are several ethical considerations to consider. While floriculture provides a source of income for many natives in less economically developed countries, the workforce is poor, less educated relative to peers in more economically developed countries owing to the lack of infrastructure and predominantly female.
Consequently, exploitation threatens and often results in very low pay, dangerous working environments, and repressed trade unions. Ill-effects are also felt in developed countries; in the Netherlands, the extensive pesticide use threatens the health of workers.
Flowers have an invariably harmful effect on the environment. While there is an unmet need for sustainable and carbon-neutral floricultural practices, there are more environmentally friendly options available to consumers.
Purchasing flowers with certifications such as Fairtrade, Florverde, or ETI ensure certain baseline standards have been adhered to. Moreover, organically grown flowers circumvent pesticide use and sustainable brands offer recyclable or plastic-free alternatives for packaging.
Still, more sustainable forms of flowers are the potted variety; long-lasting potted plants purchased from traders with traceable origins – preferably from a local floricultural exporter or home-grown. Finally, flowers can be replaced by other gifts from small, independent, local sellers.
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