Painting the Roses Red – Global Flower Industry

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

“Oh, we’re painting the roses red
and many a tear we shed
because we know
they’ll cease to grow,
in fact – they’ll soon be dead!
And yet we go ahead,
painting the roses red!”

*Disclaimer: This is a belated Valentine’s Day and premature Mother’s Day rant at the Hallmarks of the world that put a price on the expression of L-O-V-E.

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked her beloved Romeo. “That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.” Poor Juliet. How could she have predicted what the industrialized world would do (as they’ve seemingly done) to any which ‘resource’ as intrinsically beautiful as the rose? For when it comes to the global rose industry, the name is exploitation and it stinks just the same: the store-bought rose reeks of power, politics, profit and poverty.

While the Netherlands was the first out of the gate to begin exporting cut flowers to the rest of the world, the global ‘flower bed’ business began shifting soils to developing countries in the late 1960s where the desired elements would “create a pleasant climate with little temperature variation and consistent light…ideal for a crop that must always be available.” The words of David Cheever, a graduate student in horticulture at Colorado State University, who in 1967, wrote his thesis on Columbia’s potential to become the State’s ‘prize winning Rose Republic’.

Today Cheever’s dream has taken root: ninety-two percent of roses imported to the United States and Canada are produced in Columbia, where not only the ecological conditions are optimal for flower production, but the politics of the place has provoked a growing labour population – over 100,000 people are presently employed by the flower industry, many of whom have been displaced over the years due to decades of violence and warfare.

Flower export fervor has since sown its seeds in other “third world” or “developing” nations, as well, with Ecuador taking the second prize for exporting in the Americas, and Kenya being the largest exporter in Africa. The truth is that many nations have been forced into transforming former agricultural land into the production of non-agricultural goods by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the 1980s, the Structural Adjustment Programs offered “aid” to impoverished nations in turn for political and economic reforms, promoting the export flower cultivation as a “solution” for countries in economic crisis. Most recently, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has forced countries like Guatemala and Costa Rica into the same flower fate, and while the operations, no doubt, increase the GDP and generate wealth, albeit for a few, it takes a harsh toll on workers and the environment.

Flowers 5The majority of those working in the global flower industry – the invisible people responsible for stripping thorns, cutting and sorting – are women, who are often employed on short, fixed-term contracts without benefits or job security. In order to produce the ‘simple perfection’ of, say, the rose, many factories use over 127 different pesticides (many of which have been banned in North America and Europe) to, metaphorically, “paint the roses red” and get it just right for the mass consumers on Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Rates of miscarriages, cancer, kidney failure and infertility have been exponentially higher amongst populations working in rose production zones. Pesticides have been traced in breast milk of women living in nearby communities affected by ground water contamination.

There is nothing sustainable about the globalized flower industry. A single rose requires upwards of 3 gallons of water to blossom, harsh pesticides to bolster its vulnerability as a monocrop, “cold chains” or refrigerated warehouses and trucks to transport thousands of miles to the market – an awful lot of energy to reach the consumer who both buys and receives them for any which occasion and marvels at its assumed natural simplicity: “How lovely!”

rosesWhile worker’s conditions and environmental practices in the global flower business have somewhat improved in the recent years (see Eco-Sierra), the industry remains largely unregulated, and furthermore, given the world’s rising energy prices and issues of changing weather patterns and water scarcity, the real question turns to sustainability and necessity. Meanwhile, the World Bank and other international cooperation agencies continue pushing developing nations into producing a luxury commodity that won’t feed citizens and yet they claim will lead to “poverty reduction” – oh, the exploited rose!

The moral of the story?

Forgo the (store-bought) rose. Wait for summer to blossom. Alberta is home to an abundance of beautiful wild flowers. Don’t overlook the ditches. Visit your local farmer’s market. Seek out Indian paintbrush. Wild silvery sage. Tiger lilies. Forget-me-nots. Even dandelions possess a spunk to love! The crocus is the first to rise in Spring, slipping silently from the frozen grounds.

(The rose should be so jealous).


Deceptive Beauty: A look at the global flower industry. Victoria International Development Education Association. 2002.
The Secrets Behind Your Flowers. McQuaid, J. 2011. Smithsonian Magazine. 

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