The not-so-fragrant side of fresh-cut flowers
In conventional development dogma, the fresh-cut flower industry makes plenty of sense.
Nations in the global south need foreign exchange and jobs; folks in the industrialized north have plenty of disposable income for buying pretty things. Moreover, land tends to be cheap in the south and dear in the north.
Pursuing the promise of what economists call "comparative advantage," why not set up a vast fresh-cut flower industry in places like Ecuador, designed to supply markets in the United States?
Of course, that is precisely what has happened. According to the trade group Society of American Florists, floriculture has blossomed into a $20 billion industry. Fully two-thirds of fresh flowers are imported — and 93 percent of flower imports come from Latin America.
And in classic comparative-advantage fashion, U.S. companies control the trade; the global south supplies land and labor. Dole declares itself [PDF] the "the largest producer of fresh flowers in Latin America" as well as the "the largest importer of flowers in North America."
What could be wrong with this picture? To a conventional economist, all is going according to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and thus well. A market has been identified and supplied, capital has been deployed, profits have been booked, and jobs — by one reckoning, 190,000 — have been created in the global south.
When you look a little closer, though, the picture looks less rosy. As with so much in conventional development, the flower industry’s success bobs on a sea of externalized costs.
In a study from Ecuador, babies and toddlers born to women employed in the cut-flower industry during pregnancy showed poorer communication and fine motor skills than children whose mothers were not flower workers. These children were also nearly five times as likely to have vision problems, the study team found.
The problem appears to be copious use of poisons.
Pesticides are used heavily in the cut-flower industry, especially organophosphates, carbamates, and dithiocarbamates, and animal studies suggest exposure to these chemicals before birth may impair neurological development both in the womb and in infancy and childhood.
However, that’s not the only possible factor. "Long work days, job stress, and difficult work responsibilities where women are on their feet most of the day could contribute to adverse pregnancy outcomes," the researchers note, according to Reuters. "Furthermore, flower laborers work in a greenhouse setting where heat and exhaustion may also play a role in maternal and fetal health."
None of this is new, of course. In a paper published in the March 2006 Pediatrics (summarized here), researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health came to similar conclusions. Also studying women who work in Ecuador’s flower industry, the researchers found strong evidence that prenatal pesticide exposure adversely affects brain development.
To this unconscionable human cost, we can add the greenhouse-gas consequences of shipping millions of cut flowers each year north and keeping them cool and "fresh."
Seen from these angles, the fresh-cut flower industry seems less like a triumph of conventional development and more like a calamity.