Dangers of Commercial Roses

Making Sure a Rose Still Smells as Sweet

  • Roger Di Silvestro
  • Feb 01, 2005
On Valentine’s Day and the rest of the year, cut flowers are big business, but they can also be a big threat to human and environmental health. You can help by buying organic flowers.

“O, my luve’s like a red, red rose,” wrote Scottish poet Robert Burns in his famous colloquial style. But what was poetic in the 18th century may carry dire symbolic baggage today, even as millions of modern swains on Valentine’s Day go off to pluck roses red and otherwise from florist shops across the nation. Roses handed over to one’s own true contemporary luve may be steeped in pesticides and preservatives that, while posing virtually no threat to consumers, may leave a legacy of illness and worse for those who tended them.

Americans will buy about 110 million roses for Valentine’s Day gifts. That number and the millions more purchased throughout the year are a boon to the economies of flower-growing nations and, in the short term, for floral workers. But in the long term, those flowers threaten both human and environmental health in those same countries. Fixing that problem may lie in the hands of flower buyers. “Consumers have the power to get the attention of the industry and reward the producers of healthy flowers,” says Barbara Bramble, director of NWF’s Partnership for Wildlife Program.

Consider Ecuador, where the sale of flowers ranks third among the nation’s most important revenue generators, exceeded only by oil and bananas. As a rule, flowers bring Ecuador about $250 million a year in earnings, more than 70 percent of it from roses. The country is the world’s fourth-largest producer of roses. Some 60,000 of its citizens work in the business, producing a dozen roses at a cost of about $2.

Workers generally earn $125 to $170 monthly. The bulk of their hours are spent in greenhouses, where most roses are grown. Each blossom takes 45 to 60 days to bloom into marketable form, depending on which of the 30,000 varieties of rose the blossom belongs to. Farms that produce roses traditionally seek to provide the proper soil and nutrients for the flowers. Unfortunately for the health of greenhouse workers, the farms also depend heavily on pesticides to control insects and fungi.

Pesticide residues on imported roses exceed those on food imports fiftyfold. Each rose grower in Ecuador on average uses three poisons to kill worms, four to kill insects and six for fungi, including several that are tightly restricted in the United States because of their threat to human health. Workers remain in greenhouses while these pesticides are applied. Health ailments among the workers are typical of those resulting from exposure to toxic chemicals, including minor symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision and nausea as well as more severe problems such as still births, birth defects and vaginal bleeding among the women who make up two-thirds of the floral workforce. In addition, the pesticides poison local water sources and have sickened local livestock.

Problems of this nature are not limited to Ecuador but occur in other nations that provide massive amounts of flowers to U.S. and other markets, including Thailand, Colombia, Peru, Zambia and Tanzania. One solution to the problem would be tighter U.S. restrictions on floral pesticide residues. European nations are already taking such measures to lower the incentive for pesticide use, but the United States is dragging its regulatory heels.

Fortunately, consumers also can make a difference. They can purchase greenery—such as ferns, used in virtually all bouquets—that are certified by the nonprofit Rainforest Alliance, which tests standards in the field to ensure that growers are “treating and paying workers well,” says Sarah Obraitis, an alliance program associate. So far, at least 30 producers have joined the voluntary program. The alliance has not yet created a certification program for cut flowers, but consumers have other options, including flowers from companies that deal only in organics (see box below).

Bramble says that improving pesticide use on flowers ultimately falls on the consumer. “Twenty years ago, NWF and other environmental groups uncovered the high rates of pesticide contamination in imported foods,” she says. “Thanks to citizen pressure, the U.S. government stepped up inspections to find violators and worked with foreign producers to help them reduce the overuse of restricted pesticides. Now we need to do the same regarding flowers.”

Roger Di Silvestro is a senior editor of this magazine 

Online Shopping 
Buying Organic Flowers is Easy

Organic Bouquet is a company that makes it easy to buy flowers grown without highly toxic pesticides that threaten both workers and land. “We see this equally as a social justice initiative and an environmental initiative,” says Claudio Miranda, vice president of e-commerce for Organic Bouquet. Established in 2001 to market organic flowers, particularly roses, the company provides a unified outlet for organic flower growers around the world, including Ecuador, Holland and the United States, and was the first source to ink a deal with Whole Foods Market to retail organic blossoms. “That helps to raise the bar and set the standard for all retailers,” Miranda says. Order Organic Bouquet flowers through NWF, which will share in the profits, by going to http://www.organicbouquet.com/.


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