Would you buy flowers for Mother’s Day if you knew they had been dipped in weed killer?
Florists and flower growers are encouraging consumers to choose locally grown blooms this Sunday to avoid the chemicals associated with imports.
Anna Jabour is the CEO of Flower Industry Australia, which represents florists and local growers. She says flowers and foliage grown in other countries aren’t subject to the same strict use of chemicals as those grown in Australia, and imports are also fumigated and treated with herbicide to meet biosecurity requirements.
“Imported flowers don’t have to have a chemical manifest attached to them. So we don’t know how they’re grown. We don’t know what chemicals are used. […] And not only that, but all the flowers that are imported are dipped in [glyphosate] for 20 minutes and fumigated in methyl bromide, both of which are toxic substances and shouldn’t be touched.”
As florists and flower farmers approach their biggest day of the year – Mother’s Day – they are renewing calls for the Federal Government to extend the Country of Origin Labelling to for cut flowers and foliage to help consumers make an informed choice. A Morrison Government review rejected the idea.
Australia imports around $105 million of fresh cut flowers annually, mainly from Malaysia, China, Kenya, Ecuador and Colombia, according to HortInnovation statistics.
Biosecurity requirements mandate certain types of imported cut flowers, including popular choices like roses, carnations, and chrysanthemum are treated with the herbicide and fumigated prior to arrival.
Health and safety concerns have been raised about the herbicide glyphosate. The World Health Organisation’s cancer research agency classified the chemical as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, leading to a number of local councils in Australia banning or phasing out use of the chemical.
The Australian regulator says glyphosate can be used safely according to label directions, noting “Australian law requires appropriate warnings on product labels, which include relevant poisons scheduling, first aid, and safety directions detailing personal protective equipment when handling and using products containing glyphosate”.
Industry estimates suggest half of the cut flowers sold in Australia are now imported, according to a 2021 report by Deloitte Access Economics. The report says flowers sold in supermarkets are more likely to be imported than those sold at florists.
Jabour says there is no labelling anywhere about the chemicals used with imported blooms.
“People just go to the supermarket and pick them up with their hands and put them to their face.”
She adds it can be difficult for consumers to tell the difference between locally grown flowers and those from overseas.
“It’s a real issue, because at the moment, [flowers] come wrapped, they all look the same, and unless you’re in the industry, people don’t really know what they’re buying.”
Even some Australian natives like eucalyptus, billy buttons and kangaroo paw are being grown in other countries and sold back to Australia, she says.
Jabour says it’s especially disappointing that the majority of flowers sold at the major supermarkets are imported given their campaigns supporting local farmers of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Australian Flower Traders Association, an industry group representing importers and exporters, does not support Country of Origin Labelling due to the regulatory burden. But the association supports a move away from the use of glyphosate for cut flower imports.
This year, to assist consumers who prefer to buy locally grown flowers, Flower Industry Australia is bringing in “Australian Grown” yellow and green rubber bands.
Anna Sfyris grows cut flowers and foliage in Gisborne, Victoria. It’s work she describes as “a labour of love”.
The family property, 302 Flower Farm started out growing proteas and banksias, expanding to salvias, dahlias, leucadendrons, hellebores and different foliage. All grown for the local market.
“We’ve got something that’s in flower all year round,” she says.
Sfyris says “some florists absolutely come to us because we’re chemical free”.
And because she also works as a psychologist, Sfyris says the garden has helped her survive what can be difficult work. It’s a feeling of joy, lightness, beauty and connectedness she hopes she is sharing with others through her cut flowers.
“One of the things I wanted to do when we discovered this land was to be able to go outside and pick my own flowers. Well, I’ll do that now, but I do it for so many more people […] and that is just this beautiful gift I give to everyone.”