Why Flowers Matter #2
Where on earth do they come from?
‘Why Flowers Matter’ is a series reviewing the impact and benefits of the global and local growing industries. In January, the flower season seems far away and as a flower grower, we can forget what drew us to taking so much care and attention, growing cut flowers. This is a series reminding me, why I do what I do. Why flower growing is a radical act in the UK. By the Spring, hopefully even more of you will be growing your own cut flowers alongside me too.
We love flowers in this country.
In last week’s first instalment, I explored the ways we used cut flowers. I’ve noticed that whilst they are in almost every home, for any occasion, the vast value of the cut flower industry isn’t examined, let alone the impact of it.
I believe the full force of the global flower machine goes unspoken in order to maintain these complex supply systems at the cost of people and planet for vast profits.
Flowers have become a cheap commodity, like factory farming or mineral mining; we simply do not question where those products come from and at what true cost.
The UK is only third to Germany and USA in its cut flower consumption. Our love of flowers is no surprise, our climate is perfect for growing them and for a long time, we did.
In the nineteenth century, the British grew flowers on large estates across the country, and flowers began to be transported, mostly by rail. Until the 1950’s we were self sufficient in blooms.
With the advent of air travel, by the 1990’s the global flower industry swelled to a value of $100 Billion and the UK was now only growing about 50% of its flowers.
Speed forward to today, the cut flowers and indoor plant sales (1) are worth over $2.2 Billion to the British economy (2). Incredibly, this is more than the $2 Billion value of the UK music industry.
These figures fascinate me.
The Ecologist Magazine reported that 43% of cut flower purchases are made for ourselves and 41% bought to gift (3); over 70% of UK flowers are bought from Supermarkets. Supermarkets have long known the benefits of selling flowers at their entrances. That feel good factor of buying blooms as we walk in, makes people spend more. Using their buying power, supermarkets have much to gain from the current global import system and maintain the status quo of low cost flowers.
Supermarkets knowingly employ the consumers unconscious idea that if a supermarket can keep flowers fresh in their stores, then the food will be fresh too.
These flowers aren’t fresh from the field at all.
In 2018 it was measured that the Netherlands produced 58% of flowers exported, Columbia 16.9%, Ecuador 10% and Kenya 7.9%. You might not think this it too bad if most stems come across the North Sea but consider what resources it takes to grow a rose at anytime of the year, in a climate very similar to the UK.
Carbon Footprint is a term bandied around and seems to be the measure of all measures that sustainability or ethical production is considered against. If a product only travels across a fairly small seas, surely the carbon output can’t be as bad as a rose grown in Ecuador?
Consider that Kenya might have some of the best natural growing conditions for a rose. Out of their natural system in Europe, say after September through to June, that same rose will need glass houses, heat and artificial lights to coax into flowering.
This means a rose grown in the Netherlands has a Carbon Emission of 2.43kg compared to a Kenyan rose at 2.4kg (4). Furthermore, buy a UK grown rose stem in June, and the carbon footprint will be at just 5% of their imported equivalent. In fact, a weekly bouquet of imported flowers could add 1.5 tonnes of CO2 to your yearly average.(5)
These are sobering figures and could be quiet enough persuasion to never buy an imported flower again. However, carbon footprint is only one element to consider when buying flowers. The question of why the flowers matter beyond carbon footprint is complex.
The issue with cut flower importation is for me, the impact on people growing the plants and on the planet, far more than simply the carbon load produced. And for what? Low cost, high impact flowers simply do not produce a quality product.
Take for example food. I will buy imported lemons and spices because I value their flavour. I consider the distance travelled but I make the decision that journey it is worthwhile. To me anyway.
But produce like tomatoes, strawberries and asparagus are very different. I have noticed that they simply do not have the texture and taste out of season that those grown in the UK or better still in my garden. The taste is so incomparable that I don’t buy them out of season now. Why would I when I know I will be disappointed.
The quality of the product to me, is the primary consideration when making any purchase. Thankfully many quality products are ‘sustainably’ produced considering people, planet and profit. This is not the case with most imported flowers.
You need some strong chemicals to prevent a flower from blooming once it’s cut; to prevent decay, to kill off tropical pests and diseases that stems are more susceptible from their intensive growth. Flowers are ‘mummified’ so even when woken with water and sugar food, they don’t open and bloom like our garden grown ones. They sit still. No movement, no energy and worse of all, no scent. A rose without scent surely is a vastly inferior product no matter how long it can hold onto its petals! What is the point?
In order to supply us with an insatiable appetite for roses out of season, they had to breed out the very reason we loved them in the first place.
Next week, in the third instalment of this series, I will tell you more about how these plants are grown and chemicals used to do so.
“Cut Flowers and Indoor Plants” are bundled together because they are grown and transported together. Note, this figure does not include the horticultural or landscaping industry value.
Rebecca Swin’s Thesis comparing Kenyan, Dutch and British Grown Stems in 2017
‘How Bad are Bananas?’ Mike Berners-Lee
This is the second in a series ‘Why Flowers Matter’, the third will be delivered next Sunday. I want to take you a little further into the world of flower growing. Is it as beautiful as you thought?
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