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Roses under threat: Flowers could soon be missing from love stories due to climate change

  Florists make a kill as they sell red rose flowers at the City Market, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

As the world expresses love on Valentine's Day, climate change has cast a gloom on flowers, an expression of love.

Valentine’s Day, when hearts flutter with affection and lovers exchange tokens of love, is often adorned with the timeless symbol of romance: the rose. Yet, behind the haze of romance lies the sobering reality -- the looming threat of climate change on these flowers.

Patrick Mbugua, General Manager of Wildfire Flowers, Kenya, voiced his frustration, stating, “We’ve seen increased disease pressure due to unusual weather patterns – sometimes excessive heat, other times unusually low temperatures."

A new report from Christian Aid reveals a sobering truth: climate change is placing the global rose industry under threat, impacting growers in Britain and across the globe.

Kenya is a major player in the global rose market, accounting for 19.1% of the total global market share and generating a substantial revenue of USD630 million in 2021.

 The flower industry, comprising cut flowers as the second-largest export after tea, significantly contributes to Kenya's GDP, employing over 100,000 workers directly. However, the gruelling nature of the labour, with hours stretching up to 16 hours a day, particularly burdens women who make up the majority of the workforce.

Fairtrade farms employ around 71,000 people or around nearly half of the 150,000 flower workers in the country.

 Kenya was badly hit by Covid-19: The Kenya Flower Council reported that growers were losing USD 2.3 million per day and the roses were simply cut to rot: air transport connectivity reductions18, coupled with lock-down induced decreased demand, meant that different links of the supply chain were not in place to link supply to remaining demand. 

Tens of thousands of workers were sent home - wages make up 45% of a flower farm’s costs – but the low-paid nature of the work meant that many workers did not have savings to be able to have a safety net for food, or, vital in a pandemic, healthcare.

High inflation and weakness of the Euro against the dollar have meant that the rose export market remains difficult for Kenya compared to the rosier years before Covid-19. 

According to the report, the pandemic inflicted severe blows on Kenya's flower industry, with growers witnessing staggering losses of USD2.3 million per day. Disruptions in air transport connectivity and decreased demand exacerbated the crisis, leading to the cutting of roses that were left to rot. Despite signs of recovery in 2021, challenges persisted in 2022, with geopolitical tensions and economic instabilities hindering export opportunities.

Nearly 60 per cent of all exported roses come from five countries in the global south which face growing dangers from extreme weather. Three in East Africa: Kenya 19.1%, Ethiopia 5.1% and Uganda 1%, and two in South America: Ecuador 21.2% and Colombia 12.4%.

The report highlights that East Africa already faces erratic temperatures and extended droughts, and extreme temperatures are expected to get both hotter and more frequent - something that could make rose growing highly challenging. 

Roses also need plenty of water. The report cites a study which showed that droughts in the area between 2020 and 2022 were found to have been more than 100 times more likely and more severe because of climate change. 

Similar climatic dangers threaten the rose-growing regions of South America. In Ecuador and Colombia, roses tend to be grown in high-altitude Paramo ecosystems, with cooler temperatures and good rainfall. As the climate changes, temperature increases are expected to be highest in the Andean regions, including the Paramo, and extreme temperatures (number of days above 35ºC) are projected to rise significantly. 

Glacier retreat is also a major issue in the tropical Andes, with at least 30% of their area lost between 1990 and 2020. This risks water scarcity which poses a major threat to a water-intensive industry, like rose growing.

These regions face escalating dangers from extreme weather events induced by climate change.

"East Africa, already grappling with erratic temperatures and prolonged droughts, anticipates heightened challenges in rose cultivation as temperatures are projected to rise further," reads the report in part.

A study cited in the report revealed that climate change increased the likelihood and severity of droughts in the region between 2020 and 2022 by more than 100 times.

Similar threats loom over South American rose-growing regions, particularly in Ecuador and Colombia, where roses thrive in high-altitude Paramo ecosystems. Rising temperatures and glacier retreats in the tropical Andes exacerbate water scarcity concerns, posing significant threats to the water-intensive rose industry.

The impact of climate change extends far beyond Kenya’s borders, encompassing regions like Ethiopia, Uganda, Ecuador, and Colombia, which collectively supply nearly 60% of the world's roses. Osai Ojigho, Director of Policy and Public Campaigns at Christian Aid, emphasized the disproportionate burden borne by these nations, calling for urgent action to mitigate rising carbon emissions.

"Roses are a special part of the Valentine’s Day tradition but with many of them grown in parts of the world vulnerable to climate change, their future is far from rosy," stated Ojigho.

In South America, rose cultivation faces threats from changing precipitation patterns and glacier retreats, jeopardising water availability for this water-intensive industry. Similarly, British rose growers grapple with challenges posed by warmer, wetter climates, leading to the emergence of fungal diseases and shifting flowering seasons.

“Climate change has significant impacts on rose cultivation around the world. The effects of rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and increased pest and disease pressure can lead to heat stress, reduced flower quality, disrupted flowering seasons, and damage to rose plants," noted Charles Shi, Botanical Horticulturist at Kew Gardens.

Amidst these challenges, initiatives like Fairtrade Foundation's push for sustainable practices and Bloom & Wild Group's adoption of sea freight for reduced carbon footprint offer glimmers of hope. However, concerted efforts are needed, including cutting emissions, increasing climate finance for adaptation, and holding polluters accountable.

“Fairtrade’s standards require farms to optimise water use, limit pesticides and use sustainable techniques to reduce carbon footprints. We want to see fairer, more sustainable and resilient flower supply chains in Kenya and across East Africa," emphasized Michael Gidney, CEO of the Fairtrade Foundation.

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