O Rose, Thou Art Sick

Here’s an older post, gently recycled for this Valentines day. A newer one can be found here.

[Photo credit:tjgiordano]

I have an appalling memory. Birthdays, anniversaries, appointments, I’ve forgotten them all. The only poem I’ve ever been able to commit to memory (the only one that’s fit to print, at any rate) is this one by William Blake. It’s beautiful, haunting, a little too chilling for a candlelit dinner, but entirely appropriate for today’s February 14th posting:

The Sick Rose

O Rose, thou art sick!
The Invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of Crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

This Valentines, stay off the roses.

Not only are they pumped full of some of the nastiest agricultural chemicals, the people who grow and pick them likely have a fairly raw deal. As Alexandra Early, the writer of this lovely little article in the Boston Globe, learned when she went to Bogotá

“our domestic expressions of affection — which reach their largest volume on Valentine’s Day and Mothers’ Day — require painful, low-paid labor by a global workforce that’s largely female.

“Whether young or old, [the workforce] complained about the lack of protective equipment and clothing, which leaves them exposed to pesticides in the fields and to the fungicides that flowers are dipped in prior to shipment. They say the chemicals cause widespread headaches, asthma, nausea, and impaired vision. The repetitive tasks and long hours in assembly-line jobs have also left many flower workers with painful carpal tunnel injuries.”

The invisible worm in this story, the company behind it all, is Dole. Better known for its fruit, Dole also happens to be the largest importer and marketer of flowers in North America, and the largest fresh flower producer in Latin America, with its own daily charter flights of flowers, providing consumers in the North with flowers from thorn trees in the Global South.

Dole has, however, decided that wages in Latin America are too high, and that Chinese workers and flowers might prove more profitable. As a result “Dole recently announced the closing of its Splendor plantation, blaming the lay off of one-third of its Colombian workforce”. When the production of cut flowers moves to China, workers, mainly women, there will face exactly the same environmental and health problems as their counterparts in South America.

What is one to do? One could, as Alexandra Early suggests, buy flowers that carry the “VeriFlora” label. It’s ‘Fair Trade’ for flowers, a certification which promises some adherence to local labour regulations and organic environmental standards.

Another response is to swear off imported and mass produced cut flowers altogether. It’s a response worth taking seriously.

In many ways, flowers are like ivory. When you see them in the shops, you know that there’s little way they were produced in a way consonant with environmental and social good practice. Even if the flowers were picked by millionaires, plucking buds from manure-strewn open fields where they were about to die of natural causes anyway, the flowers would still have to be flown all the way here. And there’s no way of avoiding that (nor do any of the standards seek to address it).

It’s something of which the industry is well aware. My partner’s office, for instance, formed a committee to make sure their office supplies, including cut flowers, were being purchased with minimal damage to the environment. They asked the flower guy what he recommended they buy. His response: “potted plants”. And so that’s what they’ve got – and their office still looks grand.

More seriously, the issue of ‘fair trade’ is one that deserves a bit more critical scrutiny than many have been prepared to give it.

Of course the people who work in agriculture, the people who are the world’s poorest, deserve a better income. Of course the wages paid by most agricultural corporations are unconscionable. Of course, people must earn more money.

The question is whether locking rural people into producing fripperies for the rich is the best way of doing it. And that’s precisely what one does when one promotes the pesticide-soaked jet-sent cut flowers industry, whether in its rapacious Dole-shaped form, or its more guilt-friendly ‘VeriFlora’ form.

To argue for ‘fairly traded’ cut-flowers is still to say “yes, I want these things. I want the economy of places in the Global South to produce them for me. I’m prepared to pay a little over the odds, but I’m not prepared fundamentally to take a step back and see whether my desire for cut flowers isn’t in some way contributing to the problem of poverty where they’re grown.”

It’s hard to argue that the cut flower industry is the cure to poverty in Colombia. It’s an argument, of course, that has been made by development agencies, and Dole itself. It’s an argument that’s rather undermined with Dole fucks off to China when it realises that it can get the same goods for less elsewhere.

What fair trade, at the end of the day, fails to understand is that there’s an opportunity cost to growing flowers, or indeed to any other attempt to ‘develop’ a population by paying it a bit more to export its agricultural produce.

By creating a honey-trap of a single, slightly-more-lucrative-than-anything-else crop (whether that’s flowers or corn or coffee), ‘fair trade’ forgoes the chance to re-examine how rural economies might be structured differently. Rather than exporting flowers, the best way to bring wealth to rural areas might be a combination of debt relief, land reform, agroecological farming and local industry. But not only does Fair Trade postpone a discussion about a social and political alternative, it doesn’t bring the discussion remotely closer to happening. It forgets about it completely.

Instead, ‘fair trade’ is simultaneously an act of charity and of amnesia (see a previous post for an example of charity at its worst). It’s a charity that keeps poverty at bay, but that forgets to address its root causes. And the problem with ‘fair trade’, whether it’s VeriFlora certification or anything else, is that it’s being sold as precisely a cure for poverty.

But ‘fair trade’ isn’t a cure for poverty. It’s a band aid, a temporary patch.

One argument against forswearing flowers is that it will leave workers without jobs. It’s an argument that more or less exactly demonstrates the arrogance of ‘fair trade’ – either workers produce for us, or they’ll have nothing.

Yet workers in Colombia are already organising for more comprehensive agricultural transformation, despite the government’s best efforts to stop them. But the one thing they’re not fighting for is ‘fair trade’. Why? Because it is a solution with thorns. One that deserves to wither and drop. And one that can very adequately be replaced with a self-sustaining and more vibrant programme instead.

So, this Valentines, remember to say it with potted plants.