Valentine's Day: Truth about where your flowers are really coming from

  • Foreign flower surge this Valentine's Day

  • Chemically treated zombie roses imported

  • No country of origin labelling laws for flowers

  • Flower foam and plastic a concern

This article is part of the Yahoo series ‘Simple Ways To Save The Planet’

Valentine’s Day this Monday will open the floodgates for the import of foreign flowers into Australia.

While many romantics may prefer to buy locally grown bouquets, most retailers won’t be revealing the source of their stems.

Left, a customs agent examining roses. Right, an aerial view of roses similar to what will sell in big numbers on Valentine's Day..
Valentine's Day flowers are exported to Australia from around the world. Source: AAP / Getty - File Images

That’s because unlike almost every other item on Australian shelves flowers don’t need to be labelled, meaning products from major exporters like Kenya, Ecuador, Colombia will be mixed with local blooms.

An independent review into whether country of origin laws should apply to cut flowers is currently underway, with results from the Department of Industry expected to be released imminently.

Industry Minister Angus Taylor and his department said the report's findings would be considered in due course.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud would not be drawn on the issue directly, but said the government will look at ways of expanding regulations "while minimising the cost of regulation".

Billion dollar flower industry thrives on Valentines Day

Australia’s flower industry is estimated to be worth up to $1 billion, and between 40 and 50 per cent is imported product.

Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day along with major events like weddings and conferences attract the largest influx of foreign product, according to Craig Musson from the Australian Flower Traders Association.

Mr Musson, a major flower importer and cultivator, argues the surge in demand overwhelms the local industry, which is comprised of around 600 growers, meaning there would be a “massive shortfall” without imported product.

“There's about 1500 to 2000 florists in Australia, who really make the profit over those two big days, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day,” he said.

Imported flowers treated with 'carcinogenic chemicals'

Local grower advocates, Flower Industry Australia, argue the shortfall in product can be traced back to the take-off of imports in the early 2000s.

The group’s director Michael van der Zwet argues Australian growers began shutting their doors due to an inability to compete with cheaper imports.

Thirteen major companies now dominate the import industry, and they largely monopolise the available product sold at retail chains and major online stores.

A rose lying flat against the opening of a bin.
Imported roses will often have a shorter shelf life. Source: Getty - File Image

Mr van der Zwet argues foreign product is bad for wages, human health and the environment, with carbon miles, toxic herbicides and low wages all having a negative impact on society.

“I should have the right to know that the flower I'm grabbing and letting my child sniff has not been treated with carcinogenic chemicals overseas,” Mr van der Zwet said.

One chemical of concern is methyl bromide, an odourless compound being phased out internationally due to its impact on the environment.

Meanwhile in Australia, all imported flowers must be fumigated with the toxic substance to reduce the likelihood of pests catching a ride into the country on leaves or petals.

Zombie flower warning from local growers

Many consumers would be surprised to know that imported propagatable flowers like roses, carnations and chrysanthemums are technically dead by the time they arrive on our shores.

They are required to undergo a second treatment which is called devitalisation in order to meet Australia’s strict biosecurity requirements.

This means dipping them in a herbicide called glyphosate which is sold internationally under the name Roundup, for a minimum of 20 minutes.

“Have a look at the definition of ‘devitalise’, it means non-living, dead,” Mr van der Zwet told Yahoo News Australia.

“That's the issue like people are buying basically a flower tribute which is going to do nothing except continue to disintegrate.”

Both imported and local flowers are often treated with chemicals. Source: Getty - File Image
Both imported and local flowers are often treated with chemicals. Source: Getty - File Image

Once flowers arrive in Australia, they’re brought back to life by being stood in water, forcing the glyphosate further up the stem.

Because most floral displays for events and special days are not expected to last longer than the moment they are intended for, flowers infused with glyphosate will often quickly wilt.

Treatment of flowers with the chemical is a rare point both the Flower Industry of Australia and the Australian Flower Traders Association have concerns about.

While glyphosate is approved by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) Mr Musson believes there are a number of other chemicals which could do the same job.

“We’re not even entirely sure how feeding them with glyphosate is actually protecting Australia's biosecurity,” he said

“We're the only country in the world that requires it, apart from New Zealand.”

Are pesticides on flowers a consumer risk?

While the idea of buying flowers which have been chemically treated overseas sounds concerning, Dr Ian Musgrave a toxicologist at University of Adelaide, argues the issue is “complicated”.

He notes pesticides are also sprayed on locally grown products to kill fungus, insects, and other organisms deemed pests.

These chemicals damage not only humans, but also the environment, and scientists around the globe are warning insects are disappearing at an alarming rate.

In terms of direct human impact, handling the flowers, particularly if you are a florist exposed to high volumes, would face the biggest concern, however Dr Musgrave believes risk is mitigated with appropriate PPE.

Dr Ian Musgrave said wearing PPE can reduce exposure to chemicals faced by florists. Source: AAP
Dr Ian Musgrave said wearing PPE can reduce exposure to chemicals faced by florists. Source: AAP

Eating any commercially grown ornamental petals or stems is not advised.

“Flowers that are grown for human consumption have to be treated in a completely different way,” Dr Musgrove said.

“But for the general public, the exposure issue from any flower is virtually non-existent.

“There’s not enough material on plants to be of concern.

"Even if you put a rose in your mouth while dancing the tango, you’d be more concerned about thorns than pesticides.”

Plastic a further concern this Valentine's Day

Other than chemicals, the other “hot button issue” consumers may want to consider this Valentine’s Day is flower foam.

The mouldable substance is widely used by florists to anchor stems when creating large bouquets.

Like other discarded single-use plastics, flower foam will continue to break down into smaller and smaller pieces in the environment long after it has served its purpose.

While there are some biodegradable options available, the market continues to be dominated by the plastic variety.

Packaging is also an issue of growing causing concern, with bouquets frequently wrapped in cellophane rather than paper.

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