Goodbye Great Barrier Reef, Hello Dredge Dumping

Last Friday Australia gave an Indian resources conglomerate the thumbs up to dredge out the world's largest coal port at Abbot Point, right on the reef; effectively signing the death warrant on one of the country's most prized natural attractions.

From 1 July this year, we'll start to see Country of Origin labels appear on food packaging. These mandatory reforms apply to 'priority' items; the stuff you find in the fresh produce and bakery sections of your local supermarket.

Non-food items — flowers, for example — are exempt from this rule. They're covered by the Australian Made and Grown (AMAG) certification scheme, but this is only voluntary.

Sure, most of us don't eat flowers, but around ten per cent of Australia's flowers are sourced from overseas. For events like Mother's Day and Valentine's Day, demand for flowers increases. Consumer tastes also dictate that certain varieties need to be available all year round.

If you're buying roses in the colder months, it's likely they've come from Kenya, India, Colombia or Ecuador. Chrysanthemums and carnations are often sourced from China, Vietnam, Malaysia and South Africa, and orchids tend to come from Singapore and Thailand.

Sarah Mellier, a florist based in Melbourne, explains that the prevalence of imported flowers is growing. "With the price of electricity and gas, most rose-growers can't afford to do it in winter. Not only do you have to heat these places, you have to ventilate them — it costs a bomb."

In 2014, we investigated the conditions for people working on flower farms in Colombia. 70 per cent of this workforce was female, receiving less pay than their male counterparts, working 16-20 hour days, and exposed to chemicals that are prohibited in other parts of the world.

Poor working conditions in Kenya were also reported in the documentary Dangerous Flowers. Conditions at some farms have since improved, but questions remain around how much of the profits remain within Kenya.

Many flower retailers in Australia rely on the honesty of growers and wholesalers to ensure ethical practices are implemented. "I don't see how they're grown, I don't go back to their properties," explains Sarah. The United States has introduced Fair trade labelling schemes such as Veriflora, but there is no equivalent for flowers in Australia.

Author Amy Stewart looked at flower-growing practices around the world in her book Flower Confidential . Flowers are sprayed with pesticides to help survive overseas journeys, but sometimes this practice bothered her. "At one flower farm I saw a worker dunking roses into barrels of fungicide entirely, meaning the blossoms, the stems, the entire bouquet head-first into a barrel of fungicide."

Chemicals dissipate over time, but it's not clear what kind of residue is left on the flowers — especially when they're not governed by the same regulations as food. "There are no documented health threats from having some amount of pesticide residue on flowers. But then again it hasn't been studied all that much," Amy explains.

This is concerning for people who work in the flower industry and are exposed to chemicals day after day. Irritation, impaired vision and even miscarriages were some possible side-effects reported in our Colombia investigation. Sarah is also cautious about pesticides. "A local rose grower always warns me to be careful with them. He says that the stuff they spray on them, on these imported roses, is not even legal in Australia."

As an alternative to purchasing cut flowers, Lucy Chait sells plant gifts via her online site Growing Gifts. "We like the idea of the life cycle of planting a tree, hope and growth and continuity and giving back something. With climate change and water conservation we started looking at water-wise plants. We use local growers, everything is done to try and reduce our carbon footprint."

Is it time to boycott the local florist and supermarket and stop buying cut flowers altogether? Sarah is appalled, not only for the sake of her business but also for the lack of perspective. "So what, you don't eat fruit and vegetables? That's farming land as well. Should you not make chocolate because you're not going to eat it as it's a luxury? How many things could we categorise in our life like that?" Amy agrees. "What I saw is a part of the global agricultural industry which is deserving of some criticisms but also doesn't need to go away."

Amy's recommendation is to purchase flowers grown by local farmers. Rather than buying varieties like roses year-round, she also suggests buying flowers that are in season. Floral designers can also help enact change by creating commercial arrangements that reflect what is available rather than what is popular or more affordable.

Transparency in the supply of imported flowers remains problematic; there are still unknowns around the production practices involved before they get to our bouquets, coffee tables and office desks. All we can do for now is make some smarter purchasing decisions. If a bunch of flowers is what you really need, at least ask your vendor where on earth those flowers came from. Their answer may surprise you.

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