Several people have contacted me this morning to ask about this story in the New York Times about cut flower production shifting to China. It’s an interesting story and one that mirrors what’s happening elsewhere in global agriculture. A few points to ponder:
China’s push into the cut flower industry — which includes plans to quadruple exports to $200 million by 2010, or more than a billion stems — is mostly of concern to established producers…
While reliable statistics concerning the global cut flower trade are notoriously difficult to come by, due in part to the different ways countries count flowers and differences between wholesale and retail costs, this number isn’t as large as it may seem. Columbia alone sends over two billion stems to the United States every year. Depending on whose numbers you rely upon and how you do the math, China’s production may equal two percent, or possibly less than one percent, of the global market.
The Chinese growers do face some large obstacles, including a continuing shortage of refrigerated storage areas and trucks to keep flowers from wilting and the expense of flying the flowers to distant markets. Even if world oil prices continue to fall, air freight costs will always be substantial.
Ain’t that the truth. The cut flower industry is working hard to keep flowers cold at every point in the distribution process, and to try to cut freight costs at a time when our dependence on oil needs to be curtailed anyway.
China’s influence on the global flower industry may also emerge in a tactile way: the lack of thorns…rows of women strip the thorns and leaves by hand. The task tends to be done by machine elsewhere, if it is done at all.
Nuh-uh! I know women in Watsonville, California whose job title is "rose stripper." And I saw this work being done by hand in Latin America. But that’s a small point.
Yet doing it by hand is an ergonomic nightmare with a strong risk of repetitive stress injuries. “My hand goes numb if I do it for a long time,” said Miss Qian, a recent high school graduate who earns $25 a month.
Now we’re getting to some serious issues. Worker safety. Decent wages. Labor standards. And–a point entirely missing from the article–environmental issues. China is not exactly known as a "green" country. Pollution is a serious problem, and one that is not being properly dealt with. The cut flower industry is starting to make some moves toward sustainable agriculture and social responsibility, and it’s not at all clear if Chinese growers will be willing to join in those efforts.
Can you refuse to buy flowers grown in China? Nope. In spite of the story’s headline, your roses will not say "Made in China" on the packaging. Flowers are not labeled by country of origin. That’s one more reason why we need an eco-label for flowers sold in the United States–regardless of where they were grown, we’d know that they all had to meet the same standards.