Jennifer Grayson, an environmental journalist, is writing “Unlatched,” a book about the breastfeeding controversy.
How’s this as a gesture of love for the woman who bore you? Chop off the reproductive organ of a plant and send it to her in a box tied up with a pretty bow.
No, it’s not a weird botanical twist on the van Gogh woo-a-girl-with-a-severed-ear legend. It is what millions of us (67 percent of those celebrating the holiday) will compulsorily do to mark Mother’s Day.
This year, we will spend a collective $2.4 billion to buy Mom flowers. I understand the appeal. I’m a mom of two little girls, and my heart melts anytime they surprise me with a handful of dirt-clumped dandelions from our back yard. But while giving flowers may seem like a good way to show how much you love your mom, it’s a terrible idea if you care about Mother Earth.
I can practically hear my mother-in-law sighing as I write this, and I can guess what you (no doubt on hold with 1-800-NOSEGAY right now) are about to ask: Wait, aren’t flowers natural? Why is this eco-zealot trying to take down the holiday?
The truth is that most flowers are organic only in the truest sense of that word: highly perishable and thus susceptible to decay, as well as vermin and disease. Up to 80 percent of the 5.6 billion stems of flowers sold in the United States each year are imported. Of those, 93 percent are grown thousands of miles away in production greenhouses in Colombia or Ecuador. And it takes an awful lot of energy and artificial tinkering to keep those flowers fresh.
First, they are saturated with a toxic cocktail of chemicals, many of which have been restricted or banned outright in the United States and Europe — including aldicarb, an insecticide responsible for the largest pesticide poisoning in U.S. history, in 1985, and methyl parathion, designated “one of the most toxic organophosphate pesticides” by the Environmental Protection Agency. The women who work under these conditions sometimes see their children suffer as a result of prenatal exposure. One study found that the children of Ecuadoran flower workers were at greater risk for neurological impairment and hypertension.
To preserve the blooms once they’re cut, they’re stored in an energy-guzzling refrigerated warehouse, flown via cargo plane to the United States, brought to yet another refrigerated warehouse to await distribution, and — just to tack on a bit more to the carbon footprint — shipped via refrigerated truck to your mom or to the refrigerated display case at the supermarket or florist. There, the flowers lie in wait for a harried son or daughter to grab en route to Mother’s Day brunch, where still another bouquet of imported flowers makes up the table’s centerpiece.
Add in the cellophane wrap, those annoying little plastic stem tubes and the bouquet’s fate a week later, emitting methane in a landfill, and you may have gotten a gift with a bigger carbon footprint than if you’d driven four hours in a Hummer to visit Mom in person. While it’s difficult to calculate the carbon footprint of a single bouquet, experts estimate that sending 100 million roses (the number believed to be given in the United States on Valentine’s Day, another big flower holiday) produces some 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from field to florist. The average American household has a carbon footprint of 48 tons a year.
If, even after reading all this, you or the mom in your life can’t conceive of a petal-less Mother’s Day, then I have some good news: The industry has become a little more sustainable in the past few years, so it is possible for conscientious children to get their mothers less-problematic blossoms. Growers certified by the Veriflora or Florverde programs have taken steps to minimize ecological impacts and improve worker conditions. They use some organic pesticides and additives (including humus fertilizers), conserve water with drip irrigation and rainwater collection, and incorporate environmentally sensitive waste disposal into their farming practices. USDA-certified organic blooms have been grown without harmful pesticides, though organic flowers made up only 0.25 percent of the market in 2010.
There is also a movement to go local. Flowers with the American Grown and California Grown labels have a reduced carbon footprint, because they don’t travel as far as their exotic counterparts, and are grown under more stringent standards. Some smaller supermarket chains, such as New Seasons Market in Portland, Ore., and SpartanNash in the Midwest, now source flowers from nearby growers, says “Slow Flowers” author Debra Prinzing, who provides a directory of U.S. growers on her Web site. Farmers markets also stock locally grown bouquets.
“You’ll get much more interesting varieties,” says Amy Stewart, author of the industry exposé “Flower Confidential.” She points to options such as sweet peas, love-in-a-mist and other unusual stems that don’t ship well and aren’t grown on an industrial scale. “You’ll also support a local farmer who might be growing some food crops, since flowers happen to make a great rotating crop to help revive depleted soil and attract pollinators to the fields.”
In fact, the movement for local flowers is becoming so strong that this month, the Senate passed a resolution supporting domestically grown flowers for Mother’s Day. (And while it’s nice to see Congress getting involved in something mom-related, it’s too bad lawmakers can’t make any headway on what mothers really need: paid protected maternity leave — the United States is the only developed country without it — or a national fine for anyone who tries to kick a breast-feeding mom out of a restaurant or off an airplane.)
But why not sidestep commercial flowers altogether? This Mother’s Day, I sent my mother-in-law an online gift card for heirloom seeds to plant in her cherished garden, and I’m giving my mom what she really wants: quality time with her only daughter at a “girls” lunch. As for me, I’m more than thrilled with dandelions from my daughters and my husband’s promise that on Sunday, I’ll have the morning off to luxuriate in bed.