Cut-price Valentine's Day roses exported from Kenya for sale in the UK are "bleeding that country dry," says Dr. David Harper, an ecology and conservation biologist at the University of Leicester
A senior lecturer at the university's Department of Biology, Dr. Harper has conducted research for over 25 years at Lake Naivasha, the center of Kenya's horticultural industry.
He warns that cheap roses grown by companies that have no concern for the environment are having a devastating effect on the ecology of Lake Naivasha.
Instead, Dr. Harper is urging UK shoppers to buy Fair Trade roses, produced by companies that are conscientious and have a transparent supply chain.
"Roses that come cheap are grown by companies that have no concern for the environment, who cut corners and avoid legislation, who sell their flowers into the auction in Amsterdam so that all the buyer knows is the flowers "come from Holland."
"In reality, they have come from Kenya where the industry is, literally, draining that country dry."
However, some companies are taking a more responsible approach and selling directly to British supermarkets and many of them are Fair Trade certified.
Said Dr. Harper, "These companies want a sustainable future for the wildlife and the environment, as well as the people, where they grow their roses. Sadly, there are not enough of them."
"At Lake Naivasha, the good companies make up about half of the total. That is not enough; together, the industry is sucking the lake dry. The country's legislation is strong, but its enforcement is weak so companies whose only interest is profit take advantage of that."
Dr. Harper says the demand for the 10,000 metric tonnes of roses sold in the UK for Valentine's Day and for Mother's Day have contributed to the devastation of the ecosystem at the lake.
Almost half a million people now live around the shores of the lake, drawn there by the flower trade. The shantytowns that have sprung up have no sanitation - water comes from the lake and sewage returns to it. The largely unregulated use of lake water for irrigation is reducing the level of the lake.
Part of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Naivasha lies northwest of the capital Nairobi, outside the town of Naivasha. More than 400 different species of birds have been reported at the lake and hippos inhabit the lake as well.
Flowers are not held to the same standards for chemical residues as food products. Strong chemical pesticides can be used on the flowers to produce the perfect, pest-free bloom, and this could pose a health risk to workers and local wildlife, including the lake's population of hippos, environmental groups told the UN Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2002.
Harper and his colleagues from other British and Dutch universities first raised the alarm about the situation in 2002, just as the new Kenyan Water Act was passed. Since then, the lake has continued to shrink.