Flowers Often Travel a Long Way to Decorate Your Australian Living Room

In colder months roses come from Kenya, carnations from China, while orchids come from Thailand and Singapore.

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23 May 2016, 12:00am

A commercial greenhouse in Holland. Image by Flickr user ekenitr.

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," meaning the stuff you find in the fresh produce and bakery sections of your local supermarket.

Non-food items, like flowers for example, will be exempt from this rule. They're covered by the Australian Made and Grown (AMAG) certification scheme, but only on a voluntary basis.

And while most of us don't eat flowers, they're subjected to the same issues of seasonal availability as things we do eat. Consumer tastes dictate that certain varieties are available en masse for particular celebrations, regardless of weather. Tulips in Easter, for example, and roses on Valentine's Day.

An orchid greenhouse in Illinois. Photo by H. Michael Miley.

Then there's the fact that consumers want to buy tropical flower varieties in the middle of winter. For this reason chrysanthemums and carnations are often sourced from China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and South Africa. Orchids tend to come from Singapore and Thailand. If you're buying roses in the colder months, they will have likely come from Kenya, India, Colombia, or Ecuador.

Sarah Mellier, a florist from Melbourne's Casa Verde, explains that due to this demand, florists are buying imported flowers in growing numbers. "With the price of electricity and gas, most rose-growers can't afford to grow in winter. Not only do you have to heat these greenhouses, you have to ventilate them, which costs a bomb."

In 2014, VICE investigated working conditions for people on flower farms in Colombia. We found that 70 percent of the workforce was female, receiving less pay than their male counterparts, working 16-20 hour days, while often being exposed to chemicals that are prohibited in other parts of the world.

Poor working conditions in Kenya were also reported in the 2012 documentary Dangerous Flowers. Conditions at some farms have since improved, but questions remain around how much of the profits remain in Kenya.

Many flower retailers in Australia rely on the honesty of growers and wholesalers to ensure ethical practices. While the US has introduced Fair trade labelling schemes such as Veriflora, here there is currently no local equivalent. "I don't see how they're grown, I don't go back to their properties," says Sarah.

The same farm in Illinois. Places like this exist in Australia too, but it's often cheaper to rely on imports from Asia. Photo by H. Michael Miley.

Amy Stewart looked at global floristry agriculture in her book Flower Confidential. She found suboptimal working conditions were common, but it was the flagrant use of pesticides to enable overseas transport that surprised her. "At one flower farm I saw a worker dunking roses into barrels of fungicide entirely, meaning the blossoms, the stems, and the entire bouquet head-first into a barrel of fungicide."

Chemical residues go unchecked as flowers aren't governed by the same regulations as food. As Amy told VICE, "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."

Sarah explains she's cautious of pesticides as "a local rose grower always warns me to be careful with roses. He says that the stuff they spray on them, on these imported roses, is not even legal here."

But Sarah dismisses any notion that consumers should avoid imported flowers. According to her, this misses the broader problem. "So what, you don't eat fruit and vegetables? That's farming as well. How many things could we categorise in our lives like that?"

Author Amy Stewart agrees. "What I saw is part of the global agricultural industry, which is deserving of some criticisms but also doesn't need to go away."

Instead Amy recommends purchasing flowers from local growers. And rather than buying varieties like roses year-round, she suggests buying flowers only in season.

Transparency in the supply of imported flowers is the real problem. Right now Australian consumers are mostly in the dark about the agricultural practices bringing flowers to our coffee tables and office desks. All we can do is make some smarter purchasing decisions. If a bunch of flowers is what you need, ask your vendor where those flowers came from. The answer may surprise you.

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