Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Will Kenya's flower exports help the hunger crisis?

Yet another report extolling the supposed benefits of air freighted horticulture (flowers, fruit and vegetables) in Sub-Saharan Africa. This one, Sustainable Development in a Changing Climate, emanates from the UK government’s House of Commons International Development Committee. As usual, the argument that air freighted food and flowers can result in lower greenhouse gas emissions rests on a single study by Cranfield University for supermarket supplier World Flowers. Carried out in 2007, this study compared the supply chain to the UK of air freighted roses grown near Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley in Kenya with similar roses grown in a heated greenhouse in the Netherlands. Whilst this study showed that the Kenyan roses resulted in lower greenhouse gas emissions than the Dutch roses it is just one small scale study and does not apply to the entire air freighted horticulture sector, with produce often carried on connecting flights criss-crossing the globe.

Along with greenhouse gas emissions there are other environmental impacts to consider, as documented in the 2008 report by Food and Water Watch and The Council of Canadians Lake Naivasha: Withering Under the Assault of International Flower Vendors. Over 30 commercial flower farms siphoning off water with canals dug around the lake, restricting access to the lake by blocked corridors so cannot provide water for livestock including Masai cattle grazing, depleting biodiversity, and contaminating the wider environment with toxic pesticides and fertilizers. The chemicals are also poisoning workers, many of whom are not provided with protective clothing. The report highlights wider issues of poor labour standards, low wages and mass sackings which led to protests at the Oserian flower farm, which supplies over 1 billion cut flowers per year, in 2006. While exporting flowers effectively exports enormous amounts of embedded water as a flower is 90 per cent water, there were instances of wages insufficient even for a farmer to purchase water for their family.

Yet the IDC report maintains that horticulture exports are crucial for development and supporting livelihoods. While the export earnings from Kenya’s air freighted horticulture, predominantly flowers, may be impressive, up 64 per cent in 2007 to over $644,000,000, these earnings from fertile land which could feed Kenyan people, are not filtering down to people whose basic food needs are not being met. As with many other countries Kenya’s hunger situation is getting worse. The Kenyan president declared a national disaster in 2008 with nearly a third of the 34 million population facing food shortages due with displacement and disruption post election violence and crop failures exacerbated by drought a key factor in ongoing food crisis in 2009 affecting areas of Kenya including the Rift Valley. By June this year some areas of the Rift Valley have had no rain for several months. In June the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched a new food appeal for the Horn of Africa, especially urgent for Kenya because of the widespread famine and worsening conditions.

One organisation contributing to the IDC report, the Overseas Development Institute suggests air freighted produce from Africa might be labelled as ‘good for development’, but there is insufficient evidence that paying growers a pittance for ornamental flowers, something we don’t need, and wrecking the planet in the process, is the best way to lift people out of poverty. In importing countries like the UK the debate has become highly polarised, and the horticulture exports are still a contentious issue in Kenya as well. Just days after the publication of the IDC report, IBECA, the Indigenous Biodiversity Environmental Conservation Association in Kenya began campaigning for a boycott of 30 flower farms around Lake Naivasha, and protestors prevented a farm from extracting water through a deep canal.

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