TASMANIA: Valentine’s Day means saying it with flowers.
Last year Australians imported more than 5.22 million rose stems between Feb 1 and 14, mostly from Kenya.
Assuming typical bouquets of 24 roses, that’s 217,500 bouquets sold in two weeks.
The problem is that our pursuit of goodwill and affection towards humanity through the giving of cut flowers is hurting the number one lady in all of our lives: Mother Nature.
If those 217,500 bouquets were each wrapped in 75cm of plastic cellophane, that adds up to more than 163km of plastic wrapping used in a two-week period – just for roses, just in Australia.
But facts about cellophane probably won’t win over your sweetheart. So this Valentine’s Day, let’s consider making smarter, more sustainable flower purchases.
In Australia alone, there are more than 900 flower farms intensively cultivating 4,470 ha in order to supply almost 2,000 florists.
However, the majority of cut flowers sold in Australia actually originate overseas, with imports from Ecuador alone valued at A$1.9 million (US$1.5 million) in 2015.
If you’re asking yourself “why are delicate flowers shipped halfway around the world?” that is a great question.
Countries near the Equator, like Ecuador, benefit from good growing conditions, including 12 hours of daylight all year round. In these regions, the contribution of the flower industry to the economy of small or less developed countries is often significant.
In eastern Africa, for example, flowers account for more than 10 per cent of total exports, second only to tea.
Lower wages in countries like Ecuador and Kenya also contribute to the economics of flying cut flowers around the world. Unfortunately, this often comes at a cost for local growers and pickers, who experience poor working conditions.
THE THORNY CARBON ISSUE
In the United States, the roughly 100 million roses grown, shipped and purchased on a typical Valentine’s Day produce some 9,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, from field to florist.
But, as with most things in our complex and busy world, the question of a flower’s carbon footprint isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.
The Netherlands is one of the world’s biggest exporters of cut flowers, where the majority are grown in heated or refrigerated green houses.
Maintaining the controlled environmental conditions inside these buildings requires artificial light, heat and cooling, so each rose grown in the Netherlands contributes an average of around 2.91kg of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
In contrast, a single rose grown on a farm in Kenya contributes only 0.5kg.
This is largely because Kenyan hot houses do not use artificial heating or lighting, and most farm workers walk or cycle to work. As a result, flowers grown in tropical regions are sometimes considered low-carbon.
Of course, this doesn’t always factor in international transport.
As flowers are not an edible crop, they are typically exempt from regulations on pesticide use. As a result, the cut flower industry is one of the biggest consumers of pesticides worldwide.
In Kenya and other countries, chemicals such as methyl bromide and others that are banned in countries like the US are regularly imported in significant quantities by flower growers for pest control.
Worryingly, methyl bromide is an ozone-depleting substance. In some cases, run-off of these chemicals from growing fields adjacent to water bodies, such as Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, has resulted in the collapse of fish stocks that are crucial to local communities.
The good news is that there are plenty of eco-friendly ways to show your devotion.
The best option is to grow your own flowers to give as gifts.
You can also give that special someone a living plant that can grow in their garden for years to come.
This is a rule in both of our households, and one our husbands are happy to accommodate – our gardens have never looked so good!
If you decide to buy imported flowers, look for labels indicating that suppliers are members of regulatory schemes.
It’s also worth asking or insisting that your local florist switch from plastic cellophane wrapping to butcher’s paper (or similar environmentally friendly material).
Fiona Kerslake is a research fellow in viticulture and fermentation at the University of Tasmania. Jennifer Lavers is a research scientist at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation. Read it here.