Where are my flowers from? Local or very un-local? Does it matter?
Here’s a question for you:
If you’re after a bouquet of blooms, do you buy locally grown flowers or ones that have been flown in from other countries? Is it possible to even know? And does it matter ecologically anyway?
Turns out that yes, it’s worth asking the question, because it DOES matter ecologically.
Apart from the obvious “flower miles” (which to me is more about the crazy use of plastic packaging before we even start to consider the fuel use involved in flying a very perishable product half way around the world), there’s another really important reason to think twice about purchasing flowers that have been grown in another country: the chemicals required in order to meet bio-security customs requirements + the chemicals used to grow the flowers.
And here is where the pretty bouquet starts to look decidedly un-pretty.
Different countries have different standards of chemical regulation - some pesticides which are banned from agricultural use in the EU and Australia, for instance, are allowed to be used in developing nations where many of the world’s cut flowers are grown. We’re talking well-documented chemicals like DDT, Dieldrin and Methyl Bromide. (The first two are banned because of their toxicity, while Methyl Bromide is banned because it’s an ozone-depleting substance.)
But here’s the rub. Just because they are banned from local use, doesn’t mean the imported flowers have had to comply. And as the chemicals were absorbed into the plant during the growth phase, they are obviously still, in part, in the final flower & stem that sits so beguilingly in the florist shop windows.
Meaning, when they come home with you, so do the traces of these banned pesticides.
If you just want to know how to buy the most
eco-sensitive cut flowers in your area,
scroll down to the bottom of this post
for a list of ideas.
Meeting import bio-security concerns.
In Australia, a particularly high standard of bio-security is enforced, in order to keep our island continent free of diseases that occur in other parts of the world. As a largely agricultural economy, this is of course a necessity. Australian Customs check for any signs of plant disease, micro-organisms or pathogens. If found, the shipment is destroyed or treated, at the expense of the importer.
So to avoid this, the importer is allowed to fumigate the pre-shipment with Methyl Bromide, as long as it is to standards set down by the Australian Dept of Agriculture. Say what? This is a chemical that is banned in most developed countries, including Australia, but exemptions allow for this use of it.
And guess what chemical is allowed to be used in Australia, should the “onshore treatment” be an option? You guessed it: Methyl Bromide. (1)
I must say, I think Customs are between a rock and a hard place on this - they need to protect Australia’s bio-security, so they need to use chemicals that will do so. If we, as consumers, insist on purchasing imported flowers, it’s hard to avoid the use of this chemical, at least until a suitable equivalent can be found. But what if we, as consumers, decided to do something about it? If we support the local industry, by purchasing locally grown flowers, we avoid the need to release Methyl Bromide in Australia + reduce demand for it in the countries that still use it for the production of flowers.
And finally, a Glyphosate bath for good measure.
So we now have a large order of imported flowers (which may or may not have traces of toxic substances present) waiting at the customs facilities. What happens next?
Well if the flowers or foliage are on stems that are propagable (meaning can grow from the stem, like roses or chrysanthemums) they will need to be treated to a specifically controlled dilution ratio Glyphosate bath to “devitalise” them so they can’t be propagated. (2)
As the scientific jury is still very much in debate about the carcinogous effect of Glyphosate, following the 2016 IARC findings (3), I have to wonder if it’s a great idea to have a bunch of flowers sitting on my kitchen table that have been dunked in quite strong solutions of Glyphosate.
Is this really a big problem?
In many parts of the industrialised world, imported flowers (from developing countries) make up a large proportion of the cut flower market.
In Australia’s case, the vast majority of cut flowers are still actually locally grown, but this is under threat from consumer demand, explained well by Lindsey Myra, a local flower grower and florist: (4)
What’s the alternative?
In my case, I’ve trained (!) my husband that I really, really prefer A) native flowers and B) locally grown flowers. He’s coming round to the beauty of the former, and is wise enough to know that the latter is non-negotiable. Luckily, we have a fabulous florist here in Melbourne (The Roadstall in Spring St) that not only sticks to the “local only” mantra, but also wrap their flowers in recycled paper and string, + avoid the use of florist foam and plastic wrappings. So for him, it’s his “local” local flower shop, and the source of the beautiful bouquets he gifts me from time to time.
The checklist -
how to buy the most eco-sensitive
cut flowers in your area.
Buy locally grown flowers, so they didn’t have to undergo quarantine treatments.
Select seasonal flowers and foliage - so there’s less energy requirement to force them to grow out of season in heated hot houses.
Celebrate the season and revel in it. In winter, mossy branches and evergreens are beautiful with bowls of citrus placed under them. In summer, gather large bunches of fresh herbs mixed with summer-flowering annuals. In autumn, it might be stalks of ruby red beetroot in a tall glass jar. And in spring - well, let the floral riot begin!
Ask the question: where are these flowers from? - start a conversation with the florist.
If you can buy organic flowers and foliage, it’s even better. This is a relatively new market, but growing exponentially.
Selecting flowers that are native to your country, or even better indigenous to your own local area, is an opportunity to support farmers to plant flowers that provide a food source for native insects and animals to flourish. Every country has incredible flowers and foliage, which is often neglected in the desire for mainstream “exotics”.
Seek out your local farmer’s market as they will have what is not only grown in your country, but actually from your nearby area. They will often have organic flowers too.
Grow your own. Keep the bees happy with purple and blue flowers, plant a mix of annual and perennials to keep the house in flower throughout the year, or grow flowers in pot plants on a balcony or sunny windowsill.
As consumers, we each have the power to change what is offered for consumption. If we don’t buy it, shops won’t supply it. If we do buy it, they will. It’s just simple mathematics - and a reminder that we all have the power to make things better, one little item at a time.