Flowers: Not so pretty when you consider their environmental impact

One Change: Soil to vase involves air miles, pesticides, massive water usage and plastic packaging

A bunch of yellow tulips or roses may instantly brighten your day – and your home – but you might start to see them in a different light when you consider their environmental impact. Air miles, pesticides and massive water usage – not to mention plastic packaging – are all part of a high-energy and carbon-intensive journey from soil to vase.

It’s not all bad news, however, because there are sustainable, local alternatives.

I picked up a bouquet of assorted flowers at SuperValu recently, which the label said were “specially packaged in Ireland” – which is pretty vague, when you think about it. Because the global floriculture industry is not governed by rules of origin, finding out where a bunch of flowers comes from can be complicated.

Hugely energy-intensive

The Netherlands, for example, produces about 10 per cent of flowers worldwide, but they export about 60 per cent. Many of these flowers may have been planted much further away, such as in Kenya, Colombia, China or Ecuador, where they have the right climate to produce them year-round. They are then transported cold – in chilled trucks, which are hugely energy-intensive – then put on to planes, then transported cold again in a long, carbon-emitting journey across different borders.

Flowers are not regulated in the same way as food stuffs, meaning toxic chemicals are often used in their production, which can be extremely dangerous for those handling them. These pesticides are hugely damaging to the soil, water, and the long-term viability of the land – and worth thinking about the next time you lean in to get a sniff of that pretty bouquet by the window.

About 80 per cent of roses come from South America or Africa, where they use intensive irrigation systems. Some estimates suggest that one hectare of a flower farm consumes more than 900 cubic meters of water per month.

Good news

But for the good news – there are some fair trade, organic flower producers, such as Florverde, that have minimised water usage via drip irrigation and rainwater collection and use alternative, integrated pest control. The Flower Farmers of Ireland association focuses on seasonally-grown and sustainably-produced flowers. On their website (flowerfarmersofireland.ie) you'll find a list of producers who stock florists or can be contacted directly. And there are plenty of lovely suggestions on their website for arrangements outside of the summer-spring flower seasons, such as ornamental grasses for autumn, or evergreen foliage, dried flowers, and bare birch or hazel branches for winter.

As consumers, it’s time to start thinking about flowers in the same way as fruit and vegetables – grown locally or in your own garden, and enjoyed seasonally, when they’re at their best.

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