It’s February 14 and you’ve just handed your sweetie a gorgeous bouquet of roses. Tears spring to her eyes and her cheeks begin to flush bright red. But wait: Is this love or just an allergic reaction?
Valentine’s Day is a time for flowers, chocolates and the occasional diamond. But each of these love-gifts can come with curses. Chocolates can involve child labor, smuggled gems can support rebel armies (proof that diamonds truly are a guerilla’s best friend), and flowers can arrive perfumed with pesticides.
According to the Society of American Florists, more that 175 million roses will be planted, reared, sheared, and shipped thousands of miles to feed the Valentine’s Day market in the US alone. But be careful when you chose your spray of roses because there’s a better-than-even chance that those roses have been sprayed—with herbicides and pesticides.
“All of these cut flowers and plants are heavily treated with pesticides,” University of Florida Anthropologist Elizabeth Guillette, Ph.D. recently advised The Green Guide. “It’s important to avoid touching the blossoms and to handle them as little as possible, and then be sure to wash your hands.” Guillette is not over-reacting. She spent time in Mexico charting elevated instances of stillbirths and early infant deaths among female flower workers who were exposed to organophosphate pesticides.
Flowers: A Blooming Global Business
According to the US Census Bureau, Americans spent more than $400 million on flowers in 2004—$40 million just on roses. The US consumed nearly 1.5 billion roses in 2005. More than 93 percent of America’s flowers are imported, mostly from Colombia and Ecuador.
If your flowers came from Colombia, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) wants you to know that they were probably genetically engineered, showered with pesticides and raised inside a gigantic factory farm owned by Dole Foods, which presides over Colombia’s largest flower plantation. (Last year, Dole fired 200 employees after they staged a protest over working conditions.) ILRF Program Coordinator Nora Ferm reports that Latin America’s flower workers “have daily contact with toxic chemicals but are not given sufficient protective equipment” so it’s no surprise that they suffer “skin rashes, asthma, miscarriages, respiratory problems and neurological problems.”
The ILRF claims that two-thirds of the region’s poverty-waged, over-worked, floricultural laborers suffer significant health problems due to pesticides. The International Labor Organization reports that more than 70 percent of the flower-workers in Ecuador and Colombia are women. In Ecuador, 20 percent of the workers are young girls. These workers are particularly at risk in the days leading up to St. Valentine’s Day, when they can be forced to work 20-hour shifts.
Poisoned Workers Demand Justice
In December 2003, hundreds of Colombian workers were poisoned when a single container of chemicals spilled on the ground at a flower factory. The Association of Flower Exporters reported that only “a few” workers were hospitalized but a Pesticide Action Network investigation revealed that 384 workers had been treated for symptoms including “fainting, strong headaches, nausea, swelling, rashes, diarrhea, and sores inside and around the mouth.”
A Colombian Ministry of Health investigation discovered that nine different pesticides were being used in the flower factory including Dursban and Lorsban (both formulations of chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic organophosphate insecticide produced by Dow Agrosciences).
The ILRF has inaugurated a Fairness in Flowers Campaign that encourages shoppers to demand that retailers only deal with suppliers who respect worker rights. The campaign’s main targets: Albertsons, Costco, Dole Food Company, FTD, Safeway, and Wal-Mart.
Shopping for an Alternative
The neighborhood florist has long since taken a backseat to the mall and supermarket when it comes to the flower trade. Today florists account for around 22 percent of sales while supermarkets have captured 49 percent of the market. (Although there are fewer florists, they do manage to snag nearly half of the money Americans spend on flowers. The supermarkets claim slightly more that a quarter of all the bucks spent on blossoms and buds.)
“The $6 billion American cut-flower industry has been slow to embrace the idea of an eco-label for cut flowers,” Stewart notes. Meanwhile, “such programs have been popular in Europe for years.”
Fortunately you can still play Cupid without being stupid. California Organic Flowers (https://californiaorganicflowers.com) ships organic roses by the dozen. As does Akagourmet (www.akagourmet.com) and Manic Organics (www.ManicOrganicsFlowers.com). Diamond Organics (www.diamondorganics.com) specializes in organic tulips and California Organic Flowers (www.californiaorganicflowers.com) proffers pesticide-free proteas. Organic Bouquet (www.organicbouquet.com) sells chemical-free flowers grown in Ecuador. You can also order fair-trade flowers from Transfair USA (http://transfairusa.org) and FairTrade (www.fairtrade.net/flowers). If you can’t find a local supplier of organic Valentine’s Day roses (or fair-trade chocolate), the Pesticide Action Network website will link you to a host of Special Offers. (A portion of each purchase goes to support PAN’s work.)
The Local Harvest website (www.localharvest.org) will guide you to your nearest certified organic grower (for fruits and veggies as well as flowers) as well as local greenhouses and dried flower purveyors. Or you could surprise your loved ones with a gift membership in a Community Supported Agriculture cohort. One local CSA, Full Belly Farm (www.fullbellyfarm.com) will deliver flowers to your doorstep as part of the deal.
A Valentine for Flower Workers
Corporación Cactus, a Colombian social justice organization, has called on shoppers to honor February 14th as International Flower-workers’ Day. Corporación Cactus is asking the world to pay tribute thousands of workers who are “more important than thousands of flowers.” On February 14, the workers simply ask that, when you buy an imported flower, you understand that you are “buying the sweat of many workers.”
Valentine’s Day is, at heart, all about caring for someone else. So enjoy Valentine’s Day by making sure your red roses are local/fair-trade and “green.” Remember: when you buy organic and embrace your partner, you will also be embracing justice.
Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and editor at Pesticide Action Network North America. He also edits the environmental website The-Edge.org.