The following "Green Lantern" column, first published in 2008, may help Valentine's Day shoppers decide whether it's worth it to splurge on organic, pesticide-free, locally grown flowers.
My girlfriend is on the verge of kicking me to the curb, so I'd like to smooth things over with my standard apology gift: a dozen long-stemmed roses. But she's on the crunchy side, and I'm worried that cut flowers have become a major environmental no-no among such eco-minded folks. Should I find a greener way to say I'm sorry?
You needn't ditch flowers entirely—what's life without the occasional luxury?—but you ought to pay close attention to your roses' provenance. That suspiciously cheap bouquet being peddled by your local supermarket? There's a good chance its constituent flowers were raised several thousands miles away and regularly doused in toxic pesticides. If you don't want your floral mea culpa to come with a side of enviro-guilt, you're going to have to read the labels—and you may have to shell out some extra coin.
About 70 percent of America's cut flowers are imported, chiefly from Colombia and Ecuador. These two nations became flower-industry heavyweights starting in the early 1990s, thanks to the Andean Trade Preference Act; in order to encourage the development of agricultural alternatives to coca growing, the act eliminated import tariffs on numerous Latin American goods, including flowers. The region surrounding Bogotá, in particular, offers an excellent climate for mass horticulture, as well as relatively cheap labor costs. Once the American tariffs were removed, major growers swooped in to create farms or expand existing ones—among them California-based Dole, now Colombia's leading flower exporter.
Unfortunately, Latin American regulations regarding pesticides tend to be more lax than those in the United States. Numerous nongovernmental organizations, such as the Pesticide Action Network, found that Colombian and Ecuadorian flowers were heavily treated with the likes of aldicarb, which can cause dreadful health problems—especially if it seeps into the local water supply. (Pesticide residues may pose a risk to farm workers, but they are extremely unlikely to harm your girlfriend.) Flowers are also an exceedingly thirsty crop, and the rapid increase in cultivation has sorely taxed Latin American rivers and aquifers.
The flower industry's recklessness started attracting a fair bit of negative press in the late 1990s. Some growers responded by joining certification programs, for which they agree to abide by certain environmental and labor standards in exchange for a label that consumers will ostensibly associate with green cred. In Colombia, for example, more than one-quarter of flower farms are certified by Florverde, which is operated by the industry's domestic trade association; the program boasts that its participants currently use 50 percent less pesticides than a decade ago.
Yet Florverde is nowhere near as green as VeriFlora, which forbids the use of dozens of pesticides that are permissible under Florverde's regime. VeriFlora farms must also commit to moving toward organic growing—a stipulation that many Latin American growers say they can't meet, due to the fragility of their crops and the prevalence of ravenous insects.
Pesticides, of course, aren't the only environmental factor to consider the next time you need to curry favor with your beloved. The importation of flowers from Latin America would seem to result in the emission of appreciable carbon dioxide, due to the fossil fuels that must be expended on transportation. But there's considerable debate as to whether "flower miles" really tip the environmental scales in favor of domestic products—at least those grown in energy-intensive indoor facilities.
Try as he might, the Lantern couldn't find any studies comparing the field-to-market carbon emissions of Latin American flowers with those grown in the United States. The best he could come up with was this (PDF) much-discussed report from Europe, which concluded that Kenyan roses destined for British retailers emitted 5.8 times less CO2 than those grown in Dutch greenhouses. That's because the indoor Dutch operations require much more electricity and natural gas than Kenya's sun-kissed fields.
It's exactly the sort of contrarian conclusion that typically delights the Lantern to no end. But it's also pretty shaky: If you read the three-page report closely, you'll see that it's based on back-of-the-envelope calculations and estimations, rather than first-hand research. It also compares just a single Kenyan operation against a single Dutch one; since the report was funded by entities with a vested interest in seeing the Kenyan flowers win out, you have to wonder whether the data were cherry-picked.
In the absence of truly scientific studies regarding flower-related carbon emissions, the Lantern advises you to use common sense: Look for a VeriFlora sticker affixed to the wrapper or box, and be prepared to have your wallet lightened a bit more than you're accustomed to. A dozen guilt-free roses start at around $50, which may be double the cost of those cellophane-wrapped beauties at the corner store—particularly if the cheapies came in from China, a nascent floral powerhouse.
Ouch, huh? Well, look at it this way—if you're going to make yourself pay $50 or more every time you get in a lovers' quarrel, that's a pretty good incentive to keep things cool between you and your lady.
Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and check this space every Tuesday.