(Beyond Pesticides, February 13, 2007) As Valentine’s Day approaches, dozens of roses and bouquets are being stocked at stores nationwide. The intentions may be sweet but many of the flowers are not — most of them have been treated with toxic chemicals.
Pesticides are used on most conventionally grown flowers. A good portion of this use takes place in the waterlogged savannah surrounding the capital of Colombia, which has the world’s second-largest cut-flower industry after the Netherlands, producing 62 percent of all flowers sold in the United States.
With 110,000 employees — many of them single mothers — and annual exports of US$1 billion, the industry provides an important alternative to growing coca, source crop of the Andean nation’s better known illegal export: cocaine. But these economic gains come at a cost to workers’ health and Colombia’s environment.
Colombia’s flower exporters association has attempted to respond by launching the Florverde program, but with limited success; its members have reduced pesticide use by 38 percent since 1998, to an average of 97 kilograms (213 pounds) of active ingredient per hectare (2.4 acres) per year. However, 36 percent of the chemicals used by Florverde farms in 2005 were still listed as “extremely” or “highly” toxic by the World Health Organization.
The low level of government regulation of these chemicals and accidents has negatively affected workers’ health. On Nov. 25, 2003, some 200 workers at Flores Aposentos were hospitalized after fainting and developing sores inside their mouths. Authorities determined this mass poisoning could have been caused by any number of pesticide-handling violations, but fined the company just US$5,770.
Carmen Orjuela began suffering dizzy spells and repeated falls in 1997, while working at a flower farm outside Bogota. During the peak season before Valentine’s Day, she said her employer forced workers to enter greenhouses only a half-hour after they had been fumigated. “Those who refused were told they could leave — that 20 people were outside waiting to take their job,” said Ms. Orjuela, who quit in 2004.
Such problems apparently aren’t isolated: a survey of 84 farms between 2000 and 2002, found only 16.7 percent respected Florverde’s recommendation that workers wait 24 hours before re-entering greenhouses sprayed with the most toxic of pesticides.
Growers apply a wide range of fertilizers and pesticides, some of which have been linked to elevated rates of cancer and neurological disorders and other problems. The Harvard School of Public Health examined 72 children ages 7-8 in a flower-growing region of Ecuador whose mothers were exposed to pesticides during pregnancy and found they had developmental delays of up to four years on aptitude tests (Pediatrics, March 2006).
Producers say they would love to go organic, especially given the high costs of pesticides. But their risks include infestations and stiff competition from emerging flower growers in Africa and China.
The good news is that U.S. consumers bought US$16 million in organic flowers in 2005, and demand is growing by 50 percent a year, according to the Organic Trade Association. That growth has been helped by “VeriFlora,” a certification and labeling program launched by U.S. consumers, growers and retailers. Some 32 farms in Colombia and Ecuador have earned the VeriFlora label, which requires a transition to organic production and, unlike the industry-backed Florverde, bans more than 100 chemicals outright.
Chocolate faces a similar set of problems with workers’ rights and pesticide use. Chocolate is conventionally grown in the sun. Since the canopy of shade that controls pests and weeds naturally is often destroyed to make way for sun grown crops like cocoa and coffee, the use of toxic pesticides is prevalent.
Source: Associated Press
TAKE ACTION: This Valentine’s Day, show your love for not only your friends and family, but also the earth and the global community. Buy organic and fair trade flowers and chocolate, both of which are more readily available than ever. Here are some resources of suppliers of organic flowers and chocolates:
- Organic Bouquet
- California Organic Flowers
- Local Harvest
- Veriflora – check their list for third-party certified suppliers and distributors.
- Network for Good — your organic flower purchases help support charity.
- Lillie Belle Farms
- Dean’s Beans Java Drops — for the coffee lover, Vienna-roasted beans enveloped in rich dark chocolate.
If you don’t have access to organic flowers or chocolate, try other creative ways of expressing your love. A homemade card or picture collage, a poem, or a special homemade, organic dinner are all ways to show someone you care while spreading the love to the environment and society. Happy Valentine’s Day!