The high carbon cost of flying flowers
We are coming up to Valentine's Day, when Americans spend $2 billion to buy 250 million roses.
The majority of those roses now come from Colombia, thanks to the Andean Trade Preference Act brought in by George H.W. Bush to give farmers there an alternative to coca plants that fed the cocaine trade. According to Damian Paletta in the Washington Post, the industry now employs 130,000 Columbians and some make a case that it can even be called green, since they use no artificial lighting and farm workers walk or bike to work. Colombians have just about put American flower growers out of business, with production dropping 95 percent.
The real problem comes when they ship those flowers to the USA in the cargo holds of 30 planes every day in the three weeks leading up to the holiday. Brandon Graver of the International Council on Clean Transportation did the math:
In 2017, an average of 0.57 kilograms of fuel was burned to transport a kilogram of payload between these North and South American countries. Using the assumption that each flower weighs 0.05 kilograms ... 4 billion flowers from Colombia weigh 200,000 metric tons. That is over 40 percent of the total airline-reported payload (both passengers and freight) transported on flights from Colombia to the United States. Therefore, flying that much sweet-smelling cargo burns 114 million liters of fuel and emits approximately 360,000 metric tons of CO2. That figure is just for the flowers, and does not include packaging that ensures that the product is not damaged during transport.
And there’s more, 200 refrigerated trucks leave Miami every day to distribute the flowers, and many take a second flight to other cities, refrigerated from start to finish. Jennifer Grayson of the Washington Post also reminds of the other carbon costs:
Add in the cellophane wrap, those annoying little plastic stem tubes and the bouquet’s fate a week later, emitting methane in a landfill, and you may have gotten a gift with a bigger carbon footprint than if you’d driven four hours in a Hummer to visit Mom in person.
Some roses are greener than others; if you are going to buy, look for the Florverde Sustainable Flowers (FSF) label. They are grown with fewer chemicals and better labour conditions. But they are all still flown in. A better idea might be to go local and buy something besides roses. Grayson suggests locally grown bouquets.
“You’ll get much more interesting varieties,” says Amy Stewart, author of the industry exposé “Flower Confidential.” She points to options such as sweet peas, love-in-a-mist and other unusual stems that don’t ship well and aren’t grown on an industrial scale. “You’ll also support a local farmer who might be growing some food crops, since flowers happen to make a great rotating crop to help revive depleted soil and attract pollinators to the fields.”
Or, you could try one of Melissa's 8 unique green alternatives to cut flowers. These are the kinds of difficult choices we have to make about our carbon footprint; the Colombian flower industry employs many thousands of people and probably does a better job of keeping the cocaine trade in check than a border wall, but comes with such a high price in carbon.