Organic Consumers Association

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The Not-So-Fragrant Side of Fresh-Cut Flowers

In conventional development dogma, the fresh-cut flower industry makes plenty of sense.

Nations in the global south need foreign exchange and jobs; folks in the industrialized north have plenty of disposable income for buying pretty things. Moreover, land tends to be cheap in the south and dear in the north.

Pursuing the promise of what economists call "comparative advantage," why not set up a vast fresh-cut flower industry in places like Ecuador, designed to supply markets in the United States?

Of course, that is precisely what has happened. According to the trade group Society of American Florists, floriculture has blossomed into a $20 billion industry. Fully two-thirds of fresh flowers are imported -- and 93 percent of flower imports come from Latin America.

And in classic comparative-advantage fashion, U.S. companies control the trade; the global south supplies land and labor. Dole declares itself [PDF] the "the largest producer of fresh flowers in Latin America" as well as the "the largest importer of flowers in North America." What could be wrong with this picture? To a conventional economist, all is going according to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, and thus well. A market has been identified and supplied, capital has been deployed, profits have been booked, and jobs -- by one reckoning, 190,000 -- have been created in the global south.

When you look a little closer, though, the picture looks less rosy. As with so much in conventional development, the flower industry's success bobs on a sea of externalized costs.

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