Science in Society Archive

Beauty and the Beast – Flowers can Pollute

Launching the International Flower Campaign

Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher. Head of Environment Protection Authority of Ethiopia, chief negotiator and spokesperson of the Like Minded Group for Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and African Group for the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, winner of Right Livelihood Award 2000,Champion of the Earth 2006 and President of Sustainable World Initiative 

Flowers are undoubtedly among the most beautiful things in life. That is why poets have always praised them. That is why we celebrate major events using them. That is why people idolize their loved ones through them.

Of course not all flowers are beautiful. Some are downright ugly. Some stink like rotten meat or worse. But we can choose and use the ones that suit us. And those that suit us can be fussy: beauty is not easy to charm.

Flowers are designed to advertise the plant to many animal species – mostly insects. They advertise for help in cross-pollination. They reward those that help them mostly with nectar, but also with pollen.

But as you know, not all invited guests are grateful. Some are downright greedy. They take more than what the plant is willing to give. They attack it. They eat its parts. They kill it.

If it is a plant that produces flowers that we love, we, humans, naturally want to help the plant. We are known for being greedy. I suppose that that is why we are successful on this Earth, why we are displacing more and more living things, why the Earth is experiencing the largest rate of extinction of species in its very long history, and why human numbers keep growing geometrically.

So, we kill those living things that kill the flowers we love. But the flower-killers are mostly insects. And insects have proved themselves to us to be more difficult to kill off than the fearsome lions, tigers and snakes. So, we go into a lot of trouble to poison the insects, often with limited luck.

We do this especially not because we love the flowers, though we usually do, but because we want to sell them. We love money more than flowers. Money can buy you beauty. So, what is wrong if you sell beauty for money? Nothing wrong. What is wrong if you poison horrible and ugly insects? In principle, nothing wrong.

But killers are not always choosey. Many insect poisons kill off other beautiful insects as well. For example, who hates butterflies? What would be best is to have both the flower and the butterfly – including the money, of course!

Talking of money, I would like to recall the association between bees and flowers, between bees and honey, and between honey and money.

So, wanting money from selling flowers, we may kill off insects. But bees are insects too. Therefore, if we kill bees we loose money. In fact, that would have been relatively minor if it had no other ramifications. Unfortunately, if we kill off insects, our peas, beans, faba beans chick peas, lentils, Niger seed, safflower, sunflower, rapeseed, linseed, etc would not cross pollinate. Heavens, what would we eat!

We want flowers, beautiful flowers. We want butterflies, beautiful butterflies. We do not mind ugly moths. So, we better be careful about poisoning the insects that eat our flowers.

If we are not careful, we may even poison the lovely ladies that tend the flowers in the flower beds.

You may say that not all insect poisons kill people. True. For example, DDT does not kill people. However, it does something less obvious and equally horrendous.

Have you heard of little girls in DDT sprayed sugarcane plantations starting to menstruate at the age of seven years? It has happened many times. Why? Because DDT and similar organochlorine substances mimic female hormones. So, the small bodies of seven year-old girls feel that they are being supplied with the amount of female hormones that young women of 18 produce. Therefore, they menstruate.

How about the boys? Do you know what happens to males whose bodies are subjected to female hormones? They develop feminine traits. Do you think that a society where males and females are approximately the same is viable?

No. That is why the world now has the Persistent Organic Pollutants Convention, or POPs Convention, which aims at eliminating from the world organochlorine pesticides and a few other dangerous synthetic chemicals.

So let us have flowers, by all harmless means. But let us remember that if the chemicals we use to protect flowers from pests harm humans or the environment, we will be held liable.

Ethiopia now has laws to control pollution. If anybody pollutes anything and causes or risks causing damage, he will be liable. And it is not only the person who suffers the damage that has the right to take the culprit to court. Any person can.

Before investing in something that can cause such damage and make one liable, it is advisable to carry out an environmental impact assessment.

An environmental impact assessment helps the floriculturists to choose the safe technologies to grow flowers for their enjoyment and benefit

Regular environmental auditing after starting to grow the flowers enables the floriculturists to keep humans and the environment safe, and to fill their pocket free from the risk of being emptied by the impacts of pollution.

These instruments are available in the form of laws, standards, and guidelines. Heed them and grow your flowers and fill your pockets. If you do not heed them, sooner or later, your pockets will be emptied.

Be sensible and enjoy as well as benefit from flowers. Otherwise, see you in court.

Finally, I would like to say how I have enjoyed making these comments. I thank the Forum for Environment and the International Flower Campaign for the opportunity.

Keynote address at the Multi-stakeholder Forum of the International Flower Campaign, Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa, 18 May 2006

Article first published 30/08/06

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