Today – Mother’s Day in the UK – is one of the most lucrative days of the year for the country’s flower industry. Yet behind the expressions of love for mothers, and of joy by florists, other decidedly more negative emotions are stirring. And environmentalists are to blame.
Pressure groups – and more recently supermarkets – are urging customers to take into account the environmental cost of importing flowers – from say Kenya, the largest source of imported flowers into the UK after Holland – and instead buy local.
Not only is this message simplistic, it is also irresponsible. And it is about time we had a balanced, evidence-based, debate about it. Trade after all is one of the most important ways poor people around the world will be able to lift themselves out of poverty.
The fact is that the environmental costs of growing flowers in heated greenhouses in Northern Europe far outweigh those in sunny Kenya, even taking into account transport. According to research quoted by the Fairtrade Foundation, a flower grown in Kenya and flown to the UK emits 5 times less carbon than one that has been industrially hot-housed in the Netherlands. And according to a report by the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, most of the enviromental damage is caused by us driving to the supermarket to buy them. More generally, the carbon emissions associated with flying fruit and vegetables from Africa to the UK is less than one tenth of one per cent of all the UK’s carbon emissions.
Thankfully, a more sensible debate is beginning. Hilary Benn's speech to the Fairtrade Foundation provided a fresh and balanced perspective. The BBC and The Scotsman newspaper also both published last month good articles on the issues.
For now, next time you buy flowers from Kenya, be assured that on balance you are doing a good thing – for your mother and for the developing world.