Colombia’s ownership of the U.S. flower market leads to American growers claiming their government is “working hard” to put them out of business, according to a report by McClatchy Newspapers on Friday.
There are two main reasons for the strength of Colombian flower exports. One is the international war on drugs, which over 20-years has seen the U.S. government spend millions to encourage Colombian farmers to destroy their coca plants and replace them with flowers, and the other is the U.S.-Colombian free trade agreement enacted in May.
The U.S. first began encouraging Colombian farmers to grow flowers instead of coca following the then president Pastrana’s plea for help: “Developed countries should help us to implement … a plan for Colombia which will allow us to ….offer our peasants different alternatives to the illicit crop.” This resulted in the 1991 suspension of U.S.import duties on Colombian flowers.
The results for American flower producers were devastating. In 1971over 1.2 billion blooms of major flowers were produced in the U.S. and only 100 million imported. By 2003 over 2 billion flowers were imported and only 200 million were domestically grown. Colombian imports now count for three out of every four cut flowers for sale in the U.S.
Added to this is the free trade agreement passed earlier this year which reduced the cost of Colombian flowers even further.
After the 1991 trade agreement expired, American flower producers pressured U.S. lawmakers not to renew such preferred trading status for Colombia, claiming that human rights and labor abuses meant the government couldn’t pave the way for the foreign flowers in a conscionable manner. The growers found little support from their government however, which threw its weight behind global trade development.
According to the report, Colombian flowers are reported to have created nearly 225,000 jobs in the U.S., most of them near the point of entry in Miami. When the Colombian trade agreement took effect on May 15th 4,200 boxes of flowers were the first Colombian import. Last year, trade between Colombia and Florida totalled more than $9 billion and the Florida governor is even planning a trade mission to Colombia to line up more business deals.
According to the McClatchy report, the U.S. growers have accused their government of “helping competitors thousands of miles away in the temperate regions of Colombia.”
The president of the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (Asocolflores), Augusto Solano, said that “the entry into force of the treaty ensures the permanence of Colombian flowers in the most important market for the country’s flower industry.”
Approximately 80% of U.S. flower imports come from Colombia, with sales reaching $1.25 billion in 2011. Colombia exports flowers to 88 different countries although the majority (76%) go to the United States. The flower sector generates 150,000 jobs in Colombia, says Asocolflores. It is the top-ranked national non-agricultural product.
In the U.S. however, the number of acres of cut flowers has dropped by at least 22% in the past decade and the number of flower farms in California has more than halved in 20 years. Cooperatives intended to reduce transportation costs and “buy-American, buy-local” campaigns have been launched by the beleaguered growers to try and save their industry.
“People don’t understand what we’re up against, the Costco effect of flowers being shipped in by 747s each day,” said the chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission.
“Global trade is not about protecting select groups of producers but about affording consumers choice, quality and price,” reported the McClutchy article, and it seems that Colombia’s flowers will carry on blooming in the American market.