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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 15:19 GMT
Cultivating an ethical flower trade
By Richard Black
BBC science correspondent

Tulip, Eyewire
The initiative is growing out of European money
A new fair trade system for flowers is due to begin later this year.

Called FFP - Fair Flowers and Plants - it will be introduced first in Europe, but aims to become a global system.

The details are reported in the BBC World Service programme Earth Files.

Environmental and social campaigners say it will help to eliminate abuses in the global flower industry, such as overuse of pesticides, child labour, and discrimination.

"We have a saying in Holland; when you buy flowers, you are buying emotion," Kees Hoek, one of the architects of FFP, told BBC Earth Files.

"And you want to have a nice feeling about a bunch of flowers, not for example that it's covered in pesticides."

Environmental cost

Hoek runs a group called OLAA - De Organisatie Latijns Amerika Activiteiten - which campaigns for workers' rights on Latin American flower farms.

"When you talk with workers on flower farms, you get an amazing amount of complaints," he says.

If the consumer is not aware of these issues and these abuses, there is no incentive for the producer to take care of the environment
Kees Hoek, OLAA
"One of the main issues is freedom of association and collective bargaining.

"In some countries there is no trade union involvement in the flower industry; decent living wages and hours, health and safety; and we would like to ban all kinds of discrimination."

In countries like Kenya where the industry has expanded rapidly in recent years, environmental degradation is also an issue.

Earth Files went to one of the principal growing centres, Lake Naivasha, to speak with Andrew Enniskillen, chair of the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association.

"I came here about 20 years ago, when the flower industry had started but was not nearly as prolific as it is now," he told us.

"The floating weed covering the lake has gone, the bass fish population has completely gone - the opacity of the water is now such that they cannot feed - and if the flower industry was not here, the water level in the lake would be about three metres higher than it is today."

Industry codes

The flower industry has received some unwelcome publicity in recent years, as activists have raised these issues in the West.

As a result, there has been an explosion in codes of practice for growers and exporters.

Dutch greenhouse, BBC
60% of the world trade goes through Holland
The Kenya Flower Council, or KFC, the principal trade body for growers in Kenya, has one such code. The council's chair, Erasmus Mureithi, told Earth Files what farms must do if they want to join.

"First and foremost, you must look after your workers. If they are using chemicals, you must clothe them properly so that water does not penetrate; you must give them masks to protect themselves.

"You must give them subsidised medical care, and make sure they do not overwork. And there must be no sexual harassment - in fact sexual harassment means instant dismissal."

But farms which do not choose to join KFC's system can escape scrutiny altogether.

"Many of them are not a member of anything; and with those we have no idea what they do because they don't even allow us to go to their farms," said Mr Mureithi.

"We should let people have a level playground; so that if I incur so much cost by helping protect the environment, and by helping my workers, then let everybody do it."

Flower power

Other codes of practice are international, the best known being the Dutch MPS (Milieu Programma Sierteelt).

And in the UK, many supermarkets now buy directly from growers, and demand adherence to yet more sets of ethical standards.

Because of this plethora of codes, some farms may subscribe to three, four, or even more different sets of standards, which growers say is confusing and wasteful.

Despite the advent of direct buying for supermarkets, the bulk of the world flower trade - perhaps 60% - is channelled through auction houses in Holland.

They process around 40 million blooms a day, taking them in from Dutch growers, and from exporters like Kenya, Zimbabwe, Israel, Colombia, and Ecuador.

Earth Files visited the biggest Dutch auction house, Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer, which during the course of its three-hour trading morning processes 19 million flowers.

Palettes of flowers are wheeled in front of the buyers on an automated monorail.

A giant clock face displays the price of the current batch, in Euro cents. The price steadily falls, and when one buyer decides it is right, he presses a button and the flowers are his.

Blooming dodgems

There are several hundred buyers in the hall, all male. In addition to information displayed on the clock face, they listen to descriptions and ratings of the blooms from the auctioneer, and can access additional information on laptops.

Outside the auction hall, in a giant warehouse, trains of palettes are pulled around by electric carts like a surreal version of fairground dodgems.

Kenya flower farm, BBC
Flowers are a big part of the Kenyan economy
Buyers can decide to buy ethically at this stage, because the clock face displays the MPS rating of the blooms on offer.

In theory, the MPS status can be passed on from buyer to wholesaler to retailer to customer; but in practice, it rarely happens, meaning that outside of the supermarkets with their own codes, customers are unable to make the choice of buying ethically.

"If the consumer is not aware of these issues and these abuses, there is no incentive for the producer to take care of the environment or establish proper labour standards," comments Kees Hoek.

The FFP scheme should change all that.

Dutch influence

Consumers will see a logo on FFP flowers demonstrating that they have been grown sustainably.

FFP will also seek to unify all the existing codes of practice, making life simpler for growers and traders.

The first FFP flowers are due to go on sale later this year in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Stage two will involve other European countries, and the eventual hope is that it will end up as a global standard.

Bringing FFP in this year depends on obtaining seed money from the European Commission. But even if the EC does not produce the cash, FFP will begin in two years' time, because the enormously powerful Dutch flower industry has decided to bankroll it.

Some growers in Kenya are enthusiastic about FFP. "At the moment, there is not a level playing field for producers because different farms and different countries operate under such different codes," said Ron Fasol, managing director of the Oserian flower farm on Lake Naivasha.

"I think we have to look at the long term; we have to look at the sustainability of what we do.

"If we're going to have an industry which is here for many years to come, we need to adhere to standards which allow us to continue drawing on the resources which have made us successful so far."




SEE ALSO:
Anxiety as Kenyan lake dries up
10 Nov 03  |  Africa
Why florists need foreigners
12 Aug 02  |  Business
Kenya's flower farms flourish
14 Feb 02  |  Business


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