Fresh flowers are one of life's little luxuries. We love having something colorful and living in our home. And with Valentine's Day just a few days away, the season of Flower Giving is upon us. But, before you order that online bouquet to be delivered to your eco-aware sweetie on Saturday, consider this: the floriculture industry is one of the heaviest pesticide users of all the agricultural sectors.* This barrage of toxic chemicals is a serious threat to the workers and the environment where these flowers originate. Colombia is the world's 2nd largest producer of cut flowers (after Holland), producing close to 62% of all the flowers sold in the United States. Colombia's export business employs over 75,000 people growing more than 50 varieties of cut flowers. As an imported agricultural product, flowers from foreign countries must be pest-free, so many trade regulators in the United States actively promote the use of a highly toxic fumigant, methyl bromide, for some flower exports.
Workers are exposed to these pesticides in a variety of ways, through transplanting, pruning, cutting, and packing flowers (many without protective garb). Dusting, spraying, and other applications of chemicals in greenhouses (where up to 127 different chemicals are often used) cause workers to inhale pesticides, which can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, skin eruptions or fainting, as well as more serious reproductive and neurological problems.
There are grave environmental effects of high pesticide use as well: after intensive water use by the floriculture industry in Colombia, the water table on the Savanna around Bogota has shrunk considerably. In Costa Rica, pesticide residues are directly discharged into the waterways, while the pesticide equipment is washed off in streams and rivers and the runoff is allowed to enter key acquifer recharge areas.
In view of all that, it's not very surprising that pesticide residues are still present when we receive our flowers many miles and days later. That's not really what I want to be breathing in!
What You Can Do:
1. Buy fresh flowers from your local market or farmer. Commit to knowing where your flowers come from and under what conditions they're grown.
2. Look for flowers that have been certified by "VeriFlora," a certification and labeling program launched by U.S. consumers, growers and retailers, including Whole Foods Market. There are an increasing number of farms in Colombia and Ecuador that have earned the VeriFlora label, which requires a transition to organic production and bans more than 100 chemicals outright.
3. Grow your own! If you're fortunate enough to have some outdoor green space, growing and maintaining a flower garden can be a wonderful outdoor activity. Click here for tips on how to get started.
For more reading on the floriculture industry, read these articles:
- PANNA: Floriculture: Pesticides, Worker Health & Codes of Conduct
- Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 110, Number 5, May 2002: Would a Rose Not Smell as Sweet?
- Science Certification System: Veriflora - Certifiably Sustainable Grown
- Grist: Have a Heart: How to Have a Valentine's Day with a Conscience
* Via Panna
Originally published 2009-02-10 - CB