As if you needed another reason to boycott Valentine’s Day (besides the fact that it is a corporate invention that makes single people feel like crap), the dark origins of one of the holiday’s most commonly purchased items might just add one more.
As part of my studies in Ecuador, I visited two of the largest rose farms in the country and had lectures with some of the companies’ top officials. Although the flowers themselves were the epitome of beauty, my friends and I quickly learned that the rose industry is extremely ugly. The issue is pretty complex, but here it is broken down:
Most profits stay in the U.S.
A dozen long stem roses can cost as much as $120, but mere pennies of this price will go to actual rose farms in Latin America. Most of this money goes to taxes, shipping companies, refrigeration services, packaging and distribution centers, all of which are based in the U.S.
A shipment of flowers from a rose farm in Ecuador will generally be driven to the airport where they are examined and taxed by U.S. officials. Since there are only a few flights per week reserved for flower transport, these flowers must sit in refrigeration units so that they do not become worthless in the heat and humidity. After a long flight to Miami, a truck comes to take them to the packaging facility. During packaging, the roses are stripped of any sort of labeling from the original plantation in favor of the name of the packaging corporation. Then they go back on a truck to be distributed to Wal-marts and Jewel Oscos (and some of those other big box stores that are putting neighborhood florists out of business) who will sell them to the public and take a generous cut from the sale.
The environment is damaged
Flowers are grown in Latin America and specifically Ecuador because it is right on the equator (12 hours of sunlight every day of the year) and the volcanic soils are rich in nutrients. Because the profit margin for growing flowers is so thin — see numbers one and four — flower farms have to be extremely productive and use the power of scale to be successful.
In Ecuador, 6,150 hectares of land (comparable to more than 620 Millennium Parks), is devoted to growing roses. The land where these farms now rest used to be high elevation cloud forests, which are some of the fastest disappearing ecosystems on the planet and an important source of water for small farming communities and big cities alike. One of the rose farms I visited was composed of football field-sized white tents could see with perfect lines of rose plants, each with its own little irrigation hose rerouting water from local rivers and streams. Workers wearing what appeared to be Haz-Mat suits walk around spraying clouds of chemicals to ensure that the flowers are brightly colored and pest-free.
If a flower company ever closes down, the land they leave behind will be completely useless because the soil will be so drained of nutrients and so poisoned with chemicals that no plant can grow there.
Workers are exploited
According to the USDA, the rose industry in Ecuador employs over 116,000 employees, 60% of whom are women. Most companies have blurbs on their websites about how wonderful the flower industry is for Latin America because of all the employment opportunities and social programs it supports. But worker’s codes in Latin America fall far short of those in the U.S. and the many dangers to working on these farms are conveniently left off the websites.
The main issue is all the chemicals involved. Even the people who do not directly spray the pesticides come into contact with them at every stage of processing in the form of residues left on the stems and leaves. There are an increasing number of birth defects in women who have worked on flower plantations, most of which can be blamed on the chemicals they handle every day. A job on these farms is also not very secure. Profits are minimal so rose plantations can only pay workers the bare minimum. When the Ecuadorian government required that employers give employees overtime for working on Sundays, the flower industry had to let go of thousands of workers because they needed the flowers to have attention on a daily basis.
There is no way to go organic
Although there are already a number of “good practice” certification systems in existence, none of them are as rigorous as U.S. organic certifications; most are for-profit, and there are so many ways to get around a proper inspection. The biggest impediment to going organic is that because of all the different systems of transport and repackaging, there is no way to know in which farm the flowers were grown. Most florists don’t even know what country their roses come from, and many times, flowers from multiple farms will me mixed together in one bouquet. Furthermore, the market for organic flowers is minuscule. While people may be willing to accept spots on their organic apples, no one is going to want to buy flowers with a bent stem or discolored petals because their only value is aesthetic.
The industry is unstable
The USDA claims that the expected return on investment in the Ecuadorian rose industry is 30% in good economic times. Although that sounds like a very good investment, the key phrase is “in good economic times.” In the United States, where most of Latin American roses end up, flowers are a luxury item. The rose industry essentially banks on two holidays: Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, so if the U.S. economy keeps floundering and Americans no longer have the cash to drop on flowers — a reasonable decision given that a dozen roses often start at $35 — profit margins are so razor-thin that the industry would crash and tens of thousands of workers would be off the job.
So, if you can’t afford (or are too cheap) to pick up a dozen roses for your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day, you have a perfect excuse. Just explain to them the exploitations of the rose-growing industry and they will probably fawn all over how sensitive and socially conscious you are. But if roses are a must, try U.S.-grown organic bouquets that are comparable in price and more environmentally friendly.