Over 50m roses are sold on Valentine’s Day. Flowers express love and romance, with the red rose being the favourite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Valentine’s Day without flowers would be like Christmas without presents, or a chocolate-free Easter.
The imported, cut-flower industry is a thorny issue. The high altitude and abundance of water at Lake Naivasha in Kenya, part of the Great Rift Valley, create ideal conditions for flower production. A study by Cranfield University in 2007 compared the carbon dioxide associated with 12,000 Dutch red roses with the equivalent grown in Kenya. The Dutch roses produced 29,000 kilograms more carbon dioxide due to the high energy intensity of artificial light, heat and cooling over the flower growing cycle. For their carbon footprint, along with the potential for poverty reduction, Kenyan red roses achieved the thumbs up.
Due to the intensive flower production along the shores of Lake Naivasha however, looming environmental problems have emerged. With no laws to regulate usage, a Food and Water Watch 2008 report found overuse of water has reduced levels to 3.5m lower than what is sustainable. In addition, the global phenomenon of virtual water trade must be considered. A flower is 90% water. Water is therefore “virtually exported” out of Kenya in containers of flowers heading to Europe, with the true environmental cost not represented in the price.
Isaac Ouma Oloo, a local fisherman who lives in the Naivasha illustrates the hypocrisy of this virtual water trade. He argues that his country uses its own freshwater supplies (which could be used to grow food to sustain its own population) to grow flowers for a niche export market, so westerners can say, “I love you, babe” and then throw them away three days later.
The Lake Naivasha cut-flower industry is neither improving the local people’s quality of life, nor sustainably protecting the environment. There are alternatives, however, such as a more sustainable small scale agriculture and ecotourism system that would protect and support those that live around it. But with rising demand and profits to be gained, the industry will continue to expand.
What to do as a green ethical consumer? Check the label and ask where your flowers are grown. Why not avoid the standard (unscrupulous) red rose and surprise with something new. Explore locally grown varieties that benefit local biodiversity. Wiggly Wigglers sell British bouquets and Scilly Flowers offer closer to home, seasonal alternatives. Why not grow and pick your own? This Valentine’s Day, buy flowers with conscience and reveal that sensitive side. Then you can be sure your flowers have been sent with love.
To view an article written previously on the topic of Kenyan roses, click here.