1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Deep Dive: Where do all the flowers come from?

Samantha BakerJune 7, 2024

Roses are red, cornflowers are blue. Most flowers are grown on a different continent, what's it to you? There’s nothing quite like the gift of cut flowers – a special little piece of nature’s bounty in your hands. But the thing about flowers is, they've gotta be fresh and we want them year round. So, how do we grow them and how do they get to us?



Michel Van Schie, spokesperson for RoyalFlora Holland

Christine Shikoku, general manager at Tambuzi in Kenya

Pietro Goglio, expert on floricultural practices in the Netherlands

Martin Heutink, owner of an organic flower farm in the Netherlands

Max Haan, independent lawyer with MOB - a Dutch environmental NGO

Listen and subscribe to Living Planet wherever you get your podcasts: https://pod.link/livingplanet Got a question for us? Email livingplanet@dw.com. And, if you like the show, leave us a rating and review on whichever podcast platform you use – and tell a friend!  



This is Living Planet, I'm Kathleen Schuster 

Michel: It starts at 6 and it goes until all the flowers are sold.

We're inside the largest flower market in the world. Drivers on little forklifts zip through a labyrinth of refrigerated flowers in this warehouse, which extends farther than the eye can see. This is RoyalFlora Holland. 

Michel: An auctioneer is specialized. He knows the market, he knows who the buyers are, he knows what the prices were the day before and what he can expect (start fading down)... 

And despite it being the least busy day of their week, a Thursday, this place is bustling. 

If you've had the good fortune of flying through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in the spring you may have seen the purple, red and yellow fields of tulips out the window. They blanket more than 60,000 acres of the country. (That’s an area twice the size of Paris) 

Tourists from all over the world come to see these classic symbols of Dutch culture, including the ones you can hear behind us perusing tulip-themed trinkets in the RoyalFlora Holland gift shop. 

Not even including the tourist influx attracted by 'tulipmania' each year, tulips generate more than $2 billion for the Netherlands. Mainly in the form of exported tulip bulbs, shipped around the world to be grown elsewhere. 

But the Netherlands are more than just tulips. This country is a hub for the world's flower industry, making it the top exporter of cut flowers globally. 

We're just a 10-minute   drive from Amsterdam's international airport, making it convenient for flowers from the Netherlands, but also from France and Kenya and Ethiopia to be shipped to RoyalFlora Holland. They’re then sold and shipped to buyers around Europe, and even as far as the United States and Japan. 20 million flowers a day. 

Michel: So that's quite a lot.  

A lot indeed. So, in this episode of Living Planet, we’re going to get to the root of the flower industry’s environmental footprint both here – in the Netherlands and even as far away as East Africa. And we’ll hear from some of the people who’ve woken up and smelled the roses, so to speak, and are planting seeds of change. 

The Netherlands' position in Europe - both logistically with one of the world's major airports, and in terms of its floral history - is what make it so central to the flower market. 

Michel: The first auction was founded in Aalsmeer in 1911. It started in a pub, where the growers placed their products on the billiards.  

That’s Michel Van Schie again, spokesperson for RoyalFlora Holland, and our guide through this famous - and rather old - flower auction.  

So before 1911, flower buyers had been sneaking around and taking advantage of the growers. 

Michel: And they were going to all the growers in the neighborhood and they told the grower, your neighbor sells the product for a lower price. 

Growers quickly caught on though, and they decided to form an auction to sell all of their flowers together. Michel says this helped usher in transparency to the market, so soon every village had one. Over time they merged together into bigger and bigger flower auctions.  

In 2008, the two largest ones became Flora Holland.   

And in 2011, they got to add the word “royal” to their name. 

Michel: Royal, because you can only be 'royal' when you're more than 100 years old. So that's the reason we are Royal Flora Holland.  

Today, over 2,000 cooperative members – the flower growers – sell their products at RoyalFlora Holland. About a quarter of those are sellers from abroad. And each weekday, 2500 buyers bid on their products – from Dutch tulips to Kenyan roses. 

Michel: So now everything is done by remote buying. And over here you can see how the clock works.  

There is an auction clock that counts down from 60 seconds, following the announcement of each particular flower.  

Let's say this clock is for Easter lilies. The clock begins at the highest price for that batch of Easter lilies and as it counts down, the price too goes down. So buyers have to press a button at the time (and price) they are willing to pay for those Easter lilies.  

Press too late and the Easter lilies might already have been bought up by someone else.  

Press too soon and the buyer will be paying an extra cent more. 

Michel: And you could say one cent is not that much, but when you buy millions of products in a year and you pay for every stem, one cent extra. It's quite a lot of money. So that's the game they have to play. 

Once the flowers are sold, they are taken out of cool storage and drivers pick them up. 

Michel: This is a system which brings the trolleys to the other side of the road where the main buyers are located. And this system is in total 15 kilometers long. 

It's a massive operation of tiny forklifts zipping around, transporting those hypothetical Easter lilies to us in floral shops and grocery stores. 

Michel: So, flowers that were cut yesterday, brought here during the night, can be in Germany at the end of the afternoon. 

When the buyers are deciding on which varieties they'd like to buy each day, there's one more thing they can see on the auction clocks as well:  

Michel:  They can see what are the sustainability certificates a grower has and it's for the benefit of the whole flower industry that we be as transparent as  possible about the way the products are produced. And of course there are many different aspects when you are talking about sustainability. 

Yes. That’s for sure. 

When I hear this, I can’t help but think of my local grocery store. The first thing I see when I walk in are bouquets of delicate pink roses, bright yellow sunflowers, and my personal favorite, peach colored tulips – And they all cost just a couple of euros.  

But all of those euros add up to a 34 billion dollar cut flower industry. An industry that’s, as you might have guessed, heavily reliant on water and pesticides.  

And air travel, too – because flowers are one of the few things we ship by plane. And that’s not even the biggest concern when it comes to its greenhouse gas emissions…   

Really, when it comes down to it, store bought flowers aren’t a necessity. But they’re something else that’s become essential in their own way. 

Michel: Because flowers and plants give people happiness and also well-being. 

Afterall, flowers are how we show our love. And appreciation.  

They show someone we're thinking about them on their birthday, or Mother's Day, or some day when they could use a pick-me-up. Flowers are one of the only gifts that feel appropriate when someone's sick, or healing, or grieving. 

Flowers connect us to the seasons – tulips in April, peonies in June. They bring a little beauty to tables at local cafes and hallways in hotels. 

Should we give up these blooms that are beautiful, but not essential because of their environmental footprints? Or can we do something about it? 

While nearly everything we buy these days travels by container ships - an option that's cheap and relatively slow - cut flowers are one of the few goods that go bad so quickly, they need to be sent on a plane. For each extra day a flower has to travel, it loses 15% of its value. 

But air freight generates 47 times as much emissions as a container ship. In fact, for consumers in the UK, a bouquet of imported flowers had a more significant impact than an 8-ounce steak from deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon. 

And lots of flowers today are imported. Colombia and Ecuador account for many flowers sold in the US. And Europe mainly imports from Ethiopia and Kenya. 

Christine: Tambuzi is a medium-scale flower farm that started way back in 1996. It's located at the equator, base of Mount Kenya. My name is Christine Shikoku and it's been over two decades now that I've been involved with Tambuzi… 

At Tambuzi, where Christine’s (pron. “Kristin”) the general manager, they mainly grow roses. And those roses supply weddings and events all over the world – 

Christine: We mainly sell across five continents in the world, mainly Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and recently North America. 

While it might seem easy (from an environmental perspective) to say 'just don't buy imported flowers', Christine says this industry has “massively” impacted her community.  

Christine: The main farm for Tambuzi is located in a community called Buguret. It's quite in the rural Kenya. Tambuzi is the major employer in Buguret community. We have more than 75 % of our 251 employees who work in this main farm come from this very community.  

She says it’s an open farm. No electric fences. Transparent policies only. They also work together closely with local leaders on how to strengthen the community. 

Christine: For example, recently we had our big client supporters to buy water storage tanks for employees, they take it home. And who benefits? It's not just the Tambuzi employee, it's the family. And some of them even opened it up to their neighbors. So the community indirectly benefits from Tambuzi. 

They’ve also helped build a medical lab close by and helped fund a wide array of programs aimed at helping kids thrive in school and sports.  

After tea, flowers (especially roses) have become Kenya’s second largest export and one of its largest sources of employment, providing 200,000 jobs directly and supporting an additional two million indirectly.  

Pressures on the industry have also pushed Kenyan growers to adopt more sustainable practices. For Tambuzi that started with water.  
Christine: 20 years ago, the floriculture was such in the limelight. There was negative publicity because of the things that were happening And so the communities around flower farms would go up in arms and say, you're taking all the water. All these challenges made the floriculture industry be innovative so that they carry out good practices to be able to be sustainable in the communities they are carrying out the business.  

For example? 

Christine: We do harvest rainwater from our greenhouse roofs, store them in lagoons that we built and then irrigate from there. In fact, we do not do direct abstraction from the river Buguret. The river crosses through our farm and we made a deliberate decision 15 years ago, never ever to abstract directly from the river. We recycle treated wastewater.    

We use constructed wetlands to treat our wastewater and then recycle back for irrigation. 

When it comes to carbon emissions – the footprint of each rose is still high because they are flown to their destinations. In fact, Kenya exports so many flowers that Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has a dedicated flower terminal for flights full of flowers headed to places like Germany, the UK, the Middle East and of course, the Netherlands. 

Christine - who is responsible for Tambuzi's various certifications, says the farm has been offsetting its carbon footprint by using solar energy and tree planting.  

But flights aren’t the only environmental concern here. Back in Europe, the other big source of greenhouse gas emissions from the flower industry come from, well, greenhouses. 

Pietro Goglio: The heating provided to the cut flowers to develop that is quite substantial especially in Dutch condition to force the bulbs to flower. 

Northern Europe is not a place that can support year-round cultivation without heated and well-lit greenhouses. This heat is supplied primarily by fossil fuels like methane gas and coal, and to a lesser, but growing extent, renewable energy like wind and solar.  

There aren't many people who have studied the environmental impacts of the flower industry. But we did manage to find one – 

Pietro: Oh yes, yes, yes, I have a particular interest in cut flowers, generally speaking, I have them at home. I always used to cultivate a small orchard with some roses, some tulips, some narcissus. My name is Pietro Goglio and I'm senior researcher at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science at the University of Perugia.  

Pietro has studied floricultural practices in the Netherlands, and he says there are two big environmental problems with the industry – pesticides, which we'll come back to shortly, and greenhouse gas emissions, as we've been discussing. The emissions from actual greenhouses make a particularly big difference. 

Pietro: And therefore, if we are producing roses during wintertime, they have a different impact, at least in Europe, than the same product during summertime. Just for the simple reason of seasonality. 

Heating greenhouses doesn't just contribute to emissions, it can also be expensive for farmers. In fact, this was actually the drive behind flower production shifting to warmer climates like in Kenya in the 1970s, when an oil crisis forced many US and European greenhouses to close up shop. Growers in Israel and Morocco, East Africa and Latin America filled the gap.  Farms like Tambuzi don't need to heat their greenhouses. 

Surprisingly, this move to warmer and further climates wasn't the worst outcome when it comes to climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. Multiple studies have found that the emissions from transporting Kenyan flowers to Europe by air – while huge – are actually lower than those emitted by heated Dutch greenhouses. 

Pietro: So, there is a trade-off, I would say, between these two aspects. 

Certainly,  renewable energy sources could change this. And the Dutch government and its horticultural sector have agreed to reduce emissions from greenhouses.  

Pietro: For sure energy cost is going to be a drive for increasing the efficiency of the systems. And this is something that could make by itself the system more sustainable.  

Now, the other big concern in floriculture - cultivating flowers, that is - is pesticides. 

As we mentioned, the Netherlands, is of course, famous for its tulips. Less well known, is the fact that tulips account for 8% of the pesticides used in the country. 

And European agriculture really relies on chemical pesticides. They help farmers guarantee they can deliver perfect looking flowers. But pesticide exposure has been linked to Parkinson’s Disease in humans. And its impact on other biodiversity has been devastating.  

These chemical toxins are affecting pollinators, creatures that actually help us grow things like food and flowers. Pesticide residues have been routinely found in pollen and nectar, and also in bee colonies. A landmark German study from 2017 found that flying insects in protected areas had declined by about 75% since 1989. Pesticides were a main driver. 

Martin: Here we see the bumblebee. It's like a sweet for him. He's attracted by the sugar. And meanwhile he helps the flower to pollinate. Yeah, that's why we do it. 

We've come to a small organic flower farm, a little over an hour from Amsterdam to meet someone who's trying to change the way flowers are grown in the Netherlands. His name? 

Martin: Mhm. Martin Heutink, we have an organic flower farm since 2007 with a very enthusiastic team. Yeah, we are in Wageningen at Kwekerij Bloemrijk. We grow organic flowers for the local market. 

Their speciality is dahlias, but they sell hundreds of different species of flowers, too. 

Martin: We grow flowers that people know already, but we also look for the surprise element that people say, oh, what a beautiful flower, and it's also organic. Here you see the cornflower. It's a mountain cornflower. It's very deep blue. / Yeah and they started flowering this week. 

With a handful of other organic growers, Martin created Biologische Sierteelt Nederland - an association to represent organic flower farmers and their interests. It now has about 50 members. 

Martin: I experience a cycle of change. There's a lot of concern nowadays with biodiversity and a healthier world. And yeah, we experience that more people buy organic flowers. We are in Wageningen, nearby is the Plantillon, the Dutch flower auction, close to Germany. And also this week, yesterday, there was the first organic flower block and it was a premium block in the auction to establish the attention to organic flowers. 

Martin’s organic business is obviously going well. There’s only one lone tulip left in the field.  

Martin: Usually as a flower farmer we do our utmost best to cut all the flowers there are. Sometimes I make a joke when you see a flower farm with flowering fields it's not going very well with this business. 

And organic’s success is even drawing more flower farmers. Their numbers doubled this year and even bigger growers want in on the action. 

Martin: We work together with a big bulb farmer, flower bulb farmer and he has 70 hectares, so it's really possible. Yeah, it's also possible to do it on a large scale and growers look at each other. When, for example, the big grower with 12 acres, when he can do it, his neighbors think, oh, then maybe I can also do it. And when there's the auction block in the Plantillon, it's really serious. I spoke to him yesterday and there was applause from the sellers. And it's, at this moment there's a vibe, there's a national attention. 

Consumers help create this vibe, Martin says, by talking to their local florists. 

Martin: When different customers ask for organic flowers, it gets his attention. Also at the same auction block yesterday, a flower shop owner came to the grower and he saw that this weekend four customers asked for organic flowers and that's why he was interested in organic flowers. As a customer you can really make a difference. 

Growing flowers without pesticides may not always be easy work, but as Martin points out it's nothing that hasn't been done before. When it comes to weeding… 

Martin: It's like, a bit like before the pesticides, where there also farmers did it by hand. 

…but even with some returning to farming's chemical-free roots, pesticides are still everywhere. 

Max: I always believe there is a way out. But I must say that well, it's worrying. It's not very comforting to realize that these pesticides are all over the place, that they are everywhere and you can't avoid them. 

Every year, 350,000 tonnes of pesticides are sold in the European Union. That's like the weight of 35 Eiffel Towers worth of pesticides. 

Max: My name is Max Haan and I'm an independent lawyer and I do a lot of work for mobilization for the environment, a Dutch environmental NGO. I don't buy any cut flowers anymore because they are a really heavy user of pesticides, so to say. So yeah, well, but that's a personal choice you have to make. 

Seated at a long table in his living room, Max tells us that there are 2 main regulations in the Netherlands concerning pesticides – one applies to the farmers and the other to the water quality. 

Max: We know that pesticides also travel through air, and they are being washed out by rain. After it's being applied by the farmer, it spreads, it's spreading all over the place. And so, we're realizing at this moment that we are kind of living under a pesticide blanket here in the Netherlands and presumably also in other European countries. 

Rather than taking legal action against farmers on this issue, mobilization for the environment or M.O.B., is focusing on the government offices that should be enforcing rules laid out in the European Water Framework Directive, rules that limit pesticides in bodies of water. 

Max says the Netherlands has a gigantic network of monitoring points for pesticides. He and his team check the data. If they find levels that are too high, they report it to the government. 

Max: We're still in an initial stage but our first impression is that it's a widespread problem in the Netherlands. 

Of course, these pesticides aren't just coming from flower farmers, but as we heard earlier, flowers do make up a sizable chunk of the pesticide pie. 

A major concern is how much these pesticides are entering our drinking water.  

Max: We see that in a lot of cases, the levels of pesticides in the water are way too high. The government is basically focusing on the behavior of the farmers. They should apply the pesticides properly, using the right equipment and the right doses, et cetera, et cetera. But that's all on a voluntary basis and nobody's ever checking what a farmer is doing in practice when he's out in the field. 

His team is demanding the government enforce its own rules. So what’s the government’s reaction been? 

Max: The first reaction was very interesting because, as I said, what we do is we confront the government with its own data. So the first reaction was 'OK, thank you very much. We will first check whether this data are correct.' So we were like, okay, that's interesting. Because if they are correct, then well, that's exactly the point that we want to make. And if they're not correct, then the government has a huge problem, a different problem, that they are not able to manage their data and to do proper data collection. So, well, now the second reaction is we have looked at our data and they are correct. Not very surprising. And now we are waiting for the third reaction, what they are going to do about it.  

Despite M.O.B's efforts, regulations seem to always be one step behind pesticides.  

Max: They have a scientific basis, but the norms are usually revised every six years. But in those six years, a lot of scientific developments take place and some pesticides are being banned, others are allowed. So the list of pesticides are almost never up to date, so to say. So we're always kind of lagging behind. 

KWR, an independent water research institute in the Netherlands, actually found seven recently-approved pesticides to already be at levels above the drinking water quality standards. And when new pesticides are in the process of being approved for use, they remain on the market in the EU while the assessment is being conducted. So substances being used today, could be destined for the banned list next year, but are still being applied nonetheless. 

Going after one local water regulator at a time may sound tedious. But Max explains that the more cases they are able to win, the more the government will start enforcing their own rules without prompting. 

Max: So if a judge says that the government should follow its own rules, then usually that's the beginning of a kind of a change in the attitude of the government. If you use this legal instrument often enough, then it can really help to build up the pressure and make the government see that it has to change certain things in its own behavior. 

MOB is a small organization, but it's prompting change in the Netherlands. So reflecting on our visit to the organic flower farm and after speaking with Max, which has a bigger impact: our pocketbook or civil engagement?  

Max: Of course, it's both. But I personally believe that consumer action is very important. It's not a problem that's really easily fixed. And at this moment, it's kind of wishful thinking. If we make more regulations, if we do a little bit more of this, a little bit more of that, but they should go to the core of the… the root of the problem and have the debate that we have to have as a society as a whole. 

Michel: Sometimes we have to adapt and we must not forget about what the importance is of this industry, not only for the Netherlands. 

Back at RoyalFlora Holland, Michel Van Schie, agrees that there are things the flower industry can do better. And institutions like RoyalFlora Holland are raising their standards. Michel Van Schie tells us the RoyalFlora Holland management board recently decided that all of their growers must be FSI certified - that's the Floriculture Sustainability Initiative - by 2027.  

Michel: So the large supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl and all over Europe, they want it for their own footprint and of course the large ones have a lot of influence. we think that also the consumers, not all of them, but they are going to ask for more sustainable products. 

One thing Michel finds surprising is how the growers have talked amongst themselves about this new requirement – 

Michel: And so recently we had that discussion and at the moment we have member sessions. And what's interesting is that the members are trying to convince each other. The other ones say it's not that much work, but it's really important to do it. 

The idea is to have a uniform system across the industry that equally compares things like water and energy use, pesticides and fertilizers - a level playing field. It also includes things like social and governance checks - sort of like an ESG - or environmental, social and governance - stamp of approval for flowers.

But is this just a bit of greenwashing? Do these certifications really mean anything? 

Pietro Goglio says this is a good step towards sustainability, but wonders how transparent and publicly available the data will be in the end. 

Pietro: Well, let's say that for a consumer that does not know too much about certification and labeling, it's a little bit complicated between different labeling. For sure the PEFCR is going to be a standardized method and it is the outcome of a very long process between the scientists and the research institution and the main actor in the value chain.  

Bear with me for a second. PEFCR doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it stands for the Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules. Basically it's a measurement system for the environmental impacts of agricultural products proposed by the European Commission. And the Floriculture Sustainability Initiative supports use of this measurement system to evaluate flowers too. 

But how are consumers supposed to keep all of this straight?

Michel: Of course, a florist knows where the flowers are coming from. So he can make that claim for sure when he buys it himself, he knows it because it's on the clock. And we are heading to a system with Flori-PEFCR, where the footprint of a flower will be on stem level. So then you know what is the footprint of a bouquet. 

QR codes for chrysanthemums and carnations, that's the idea. 

In some ways it harkens back to the auction's founding - as a way to offer transparency and create a level playing field among growers. 

Outro and credits

Skip next section About the show

About the show

Living Planet 210318 Podcast Picture Teaser

Living Planet

Looking to reconnect with nature? Want to make better decisions for the health of the planet? Every Friday, Living Planet brings you the stories, facts and debates on the key environmental issues of our time.