Daisies With Thorns: The Dark Side of the Cut Flower Industry

by guest author Stacey Nebel.

Almighty God, in giving us dominion over things on earth, you made us fellow workers in your creation: Give us wisdom and reverence so to use the resources of nature, that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

Book of Common Prayer #41

Mexican Sunflower. Photo by and 2008 Derek Ramsey under GNU Free Documentation License
Mexican Sunflower. Photo by © 2008 Derek Ramsey under GNU Free Documentation License

What joy to behold such beauty as a flower!  It is no wonder the delicate aromas, variegated colors and textures that delight the senses have inspired so many poets, artists and thinkers.  The arrival of buds dawn the sweet relief of spring.  As blooms burst forth, creation once again sings in flowers.  During this season we as Christians share together in the joy of celebrating Jesus’ resurrection!  Many churches that I have attended throughout my life have more extravagant displays of flowers than usual, commemorating the Paschal feast.  

There was a time in my life when I was awed and mesmerized at God’s beauty pouring forth from floral arrangements adorning the altar displays and various parts of the church.  However, after several years working in the cut flower industry, my vision has changed.  Their presence now tells of the disproportionate harm being done to God’s creation.  The industry standard is not only unsustainable, it is highly toxic.  

Most flowers travel thousands of miles on carbon dioxide-emitting vehicles, and require great expenditures of energy (e.g. refrigerated transport and storage) and chemicals to keep them looking alive.  The flowers are treated heavily throughout the whole process with an array of chemicals, commonly overused due to the flowers’ fragility and to keep up with high demand.  In order to keep any and all pests off the flowers, farmers douse them with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in order to successfully pass stringent pest and disease customs policies, including some like DDT that are banned in the States.  

A rose isn’t JUST a rose: it’s probably also a vehicle for harmful agricultural chemicals.  CC0 1.0 Universal license by Photospook

Testing by the Environmental Working Group on retail roses “showed the presence of a dozen different pesticides, including two “probable carcinogens”—one of which was present at a level 50 times higher than permitted in food. ” Even on the florist’s end, flowers are dipped, sprayed and bathed in various chemicals to perk them up and maintain their “fresh” look.  Products designated for floral arrangements, such as floral foam, tape and glue, are also unfriendly to the environment and unsustainably sourced.  Growers on these farms frequently suffer due to the toxic excesses, not to mention their barely livable conditions, as is often the case for farm workers in underdeveloped countries (hence the rise of the fair-trade movement).  

For the last year of my employment as a florist, I had health conditions that perplexed my doctors, including reproductive issues and severe nausea and dizziness while at work, leading to extreme weight loss.  A study performed on Colombian cut flower farms indicated the workers were exposed to “127 different types of pesticides”.  Long-term effects include reproduction issues, birth abnormalities, and other life-threatening diseases: “the Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis journal found that DNA adducts, indicative of early-stage cancer, was present in 60 percent of longtime workers in the floriculturist industry.”  Another study by the International Journal of Environmental Health Research demonstrated the following about workers in the Philippines:

Thirty-two percent of the workers reported pesticide-related illnesses since starting work in the flower business, which typically centered around the eyes, ears, nose, and throat. The most commonly reported symptoms were weakness and fatigue, muscle pain, chills and fever, blurred vision, dizziness, and headache.

Flowers play a very important role in our lives: weddings, funerals, celebrations of all kinds. Photo: CC Licensed, wedding circa 1940.
Flowers play a very important role in our lives: weddings, funerals, celebrations of all kinds. Photo: CC Licensed, wedding circa 1940.

Even the cut flowers grown in the States are a large source of toxic pollution.  The Environmental Working Group’s study discovered “pesticides on roses, whether they come from Colombia or California.”  In addition to the many chemicals used, waste surpluses are the norm, from farmer to florist, compounding landfill problems.  Thankfully there are a few farms using more sustainable growing practices, though they are exceptions to the rule.

It is only now, as I performed this investigation, that light is shed on the reasons causing my ill-health.  Thankfully, my health is improving, yet my heart goes out for all who are still exposed to the toxic loads in the cut flower industry.  Thus I write in love for God and God’s creation, as I seek to understand and live Jesus’ command to wholly love God and neighbor.  Just as I want to be informed and led by God to steward and nurture God’s creation well, I pray that my Christian community strives to do so, too.  

I have hope.  I am hopeful that we, as Christians, can assume a position of leadership in caring for God’s creation.  I am hopeful that, as awareness grows about problems, solutions will follow.  I am hopeful that we will stop supporting practices that bring harm and instead champion ways shaped by loving kindness and aimed at revering God, while benefiting our and future generations.

Currently, the cut flower industry is by and large unsustainable and adverse to the environment. I am encouraged that we can be good stewards.  As a community that manages and looks after God’s creation, we can support growing practices and industries that are conservation-oriented, renewable and sustainable.  

  • CC0 1.0 Universal license
    CC0 1.0 Universal license

    Grow your own flowers!

  • Support a flower business that is committed to sustainable practices (ask the manager or owner about their policies)
  • Think outside the box of cut floral arrangements:
    • Use a potted houseplant, an art project created by the church youth, or simply nothing on the church altar
  • Take the funds that would have purchased cut flowers and use them towards establishing a church garden, which can foster community, educate, nurture God’s creation and feed the hungry–win-win-win-win.

While there are many ways to express our leadership in creation care, I am suggesting this simple act that could, as in a butterfly effect, compound into greater transformation to the current system for healing change, thereby expressing love for God and God’s creation, all for the glory of God!

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About the author:

Stacey Nebel currently resides just north of Nashville, TN.  She began working part time in a flower shop and six months later moved to full time.  Shortly thereafter she was promoted to a management position and quickly grew aware of the immensity of the problem with the cut flower industry.  As one who cares deeply about God’s creation, she felt hypocritical working in an industry that causes unnecessary harm.  Stacey started looking for other work, yet circumstances kept her there for longer than hoped.  It wasn’t until she left, in October of 2015, that she began researching and learning about even greater depths of the problem (e.g. farm workers health problems and extreme excess of chemicals, which lingered even after reaching the retail floor).