A Grand Gesture
As evidence that Valentine’s Day is here, roses are everywhere – grocery and drug stores, gas stations, and sidewalk vendors offering a bunch for the last-minute Romeo. Until the late 1980s, most roses sold in the United States came from California. A dozen roses would have set you back around $150, which is why the tradition was a grand gesture and a symbol of the seriousness of your relationship. Not really so much today – a dozen roses can be purchased for less than $20.
Why are roses so affordable? The explanation is years of U.S. Government trade, development, and drug eradication policies designed to move South American growers away from cultivating the coca plant used to make cocaine, by substituting commercially profitable production of cut flowers.
Americans will give each other 200 million roses over the Valentine season. The majority were grown in Colombia. Over the course of a year, Colombia exports around 4 billion roses to the United States and supplies 60 percent of U.S. imports of fresh cut flowers overall. Production and shipping are so efficient and cost-effective that roses from Colombia can reach the U.S. East Coast ahead of a similar shipment from California.
The competition from South American suppliers, particularly Colombia, has caused California production to plummet by 95 percent since 1991. The year 1991 is significant. It was the year Congress passed the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA, later expanded and renamed the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act).
ATPA represented a tool in the U.S. policy toolkit to disrupt the drug trade and cartels in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, and slow the flow of drugs into the United States. Reducing or eliminating tariffs on imports from the region was intended to incentivize farmers to replace illicit coca production with legitimate (and safer) alternatives.
The reduction in tariffs gave Colombian growers a boost, but the seeds to grow the Latin American rose industry were really planted back in the 1960s under President Kennedy through economic development programs implemented by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to combat the spread of Communism in Latin America. Over decades, U.S. funding supported the infrastructure critical to developing an industry that could offer employment, education and empowerment to hundreds of thousands – predominantly female – workers.
The program’s successes came at the expense of U.S. growers. The U.S. florist industry petitioned for a series of anti-dumping investigations that resulted in negligible penalties on importers, and little tangible relief for U.S. industry. As imports grew, the number of U.S. rose farms dwindled from several hundred to fewer than 20 large-scale rose producers today.
Not Everything is Coming Up Roses
The savanna near Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, is ideal for flower cultivation. It sits 8,700 feet above sea level about 320 miles north of the equator and possess clay-rich soil. Since the 2016 peace accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, many of the coca farms in this area have been replaced with flower production.
But Colombia’s blessings are also a curse. FARC offshoots and other guerrilla groups have been able to move coca production from central highlands to the country’s coastal deltas and frontier areas where it is thriving.
Aerial fumigation to wipe out coca plots was discontinued due to concerns about the effects on human health and damage to local soil and water systems. As well, crop substitution programs have lapsed, leaving a lack of economic alternatives for poor communities where cocaine traffickers have moved in ( though the government has announced plans to replace around 50,000 hectares of illegal crops with the growing of cacao and fruit trees).
As a result, coca production is on the rise. With somewhere between 150,000 and 180,000 hectares of coca under cultivation, according to United Nations and U.S. estimates, Colombia produced its largest crop of coca in 2016 in nearly two decades.
A Rose by Any Other Name
Trade preference programs played some role in helping to provide a safer livelihood for hundreds of thousands of South Americans while making roses accessible to most everyone and for all occasions. Walmart buys so many roses that its purchases are actively monitored by the industry as an economic indicator.
Back in California, the remaining growers still produce around 30 million roses each year. Rather than cultivate mass-produced roses (the red, long stemmed, no scent, durable variety), these growers are working with universities and research centers to create new and specialty cut rose varieties to serve niche segments of the markets such as weddings and other high-end celebrations.
More reading: Archived reports by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative on the operation and impact of the Andean Trade Preferences Act can be accessed here.
Sarah Smiley is a strategic communications and policy expert with over 20 years in international trade and government affairs, working in the U.S. Government, private sector and international organizations.