For many Americans, giving your significant other a dozen sweet-smelling roses is the ultimate symbol of Valentine's Day affection, but it might not be the best expression of love for your planet.
Behind the rose's showy beauty often lurks an ugly environmental story that growers and activists are slowly working to change.
In the early 1990s, free trade agreements opened up U.S. markets to a wave of cheap flowers from Latin America. Low wages, lax environmental regulations, and abundant sunlight allowed growers there to quickly out-compete U.S. flower producers. The majority of flowers sold in the United States now come from Latin America. Colombia alone supplies 80 percent of cut flower imports, and sent half a billion cut flowers last year just for Valentine's Day.
Although environmental and worker protections in Latin America have drastically improved since the industry first sprang up, the non-profit Rainforest Alliance-an independent group based in New York that certifies products as environmentally sustainable-claims there is still much to be desired.
"There has definitely been an improvement, but I wouldn't say it's improvement across the board," said Alex Morgan, manager of sustainable agriculture for Rainforest Alliance. Among many issues, the group emphasizes poor oversight of pesticides as a major problem. Despite many Latin American countries enacting pesticide regulations similar to those in the United States, "there's no mechanism for enforcement," Morgan said.