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Sierra Magazine

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The Hidden Life of cut flowers

by Jennifer Hattam

A colorful bouquet can brighten a room and warm the heart of its recipient. But the effects of some freshly cut flowers on the workers who grow them--and on the environment--aren’t nearly so sweet. While the impact of pesticide use in the $7.6 billion U.S. cut-flower industry is just as deleterious as it is in other forms of agriculture, the hazards that lurk inside flowers haven’t received nearly as much attention.

Seventy percent of flowers sold in the United States are imported, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; 59 percent of those come from Colombia and 15 percent from Ecuador. Chemicals can help keep buds fresh over the long journey, and the major flower-producing countries spray away. In a 1995 report, Bittersweet Harvests for Global Supermarkets, the World Resources Institute found that rose and carnation producers in Ecuador use an average of six fungicides, four insecticides, and several herbicides. The situation is worse in Colombia, where flower-plantation workers near Bogotá are exposed to 127 types of pesticides. Nearly two-thirds of the Colombian workers suffer from headaches, nausea, rashes, asthma, and other symptoms of pesticide-related illnesses. (Such severe health effects are unlikely to plague consumers, though pesticide residues may aggravate existing allergies or chemical sensitivities.) In addition to the human toll, flower farms--20 percent of which are owned by Los Angeles–based Dole Food--have polluted and depleted Bogotá’s streams and groundwater.

By the time they reach your beloved, those fresh-smelling blossoms have left a plume of petroleum. As Niala Maharaj and Gaston Dorren note in The Game of the Rose: The Third World in the Global Flower Trade, “Flying 44 tons [of flowers] from southern Africa to western Europe consumes 60 tons of jet fuel. Adding the energy consumption of trucking the flowers from the farm to the airport and from the airport to the customer, it is safe to say that a vase holding a bunch of ten imported flowers . . . contains well over half a liter of oil.” Flowers can also wreak havoc in their destination ecosystem: Despite U.S. requirements that all imports be completely pest-free, some insects make it past the USDA agents fighting the spread of invasive species. A decade ago, cut flowers likely brought the South American cactus moth to Florida, where it decimated the region’s population of semaphore cactus.

Even U.S. blossoms aren’t hazard-free. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the amount of pesticide residue allowable on food, but not on flowers,” says Susan Kegley, a staff scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America (www.igc.org/panna). Laws are left entirely to individual states; in California, one of the only states to carefully track pesticide use, flower growers apply almost 800,000 pounds of pesticides each year. About half is the fumigant methyl bromide, which was banned in the Netherlands ten years ago because of concerns about air and groundwater pollution. (The rest is primarily two other fumigants, metam sodium and chloropicrin, and several carcinogenic fungicides.) Because it depletes the ozone layer, methyl bromide’s use in the United States is scheduled to be reduced by half this year and eliminated completely in 2005; but this plan is sure to meet resistance from agricultural companies, which have successfully fought off attempts to ban the chemical in California for a decade.

For flowers as benign as they are beautiful, your best bet is to buy organic. You can search for local farms, farmers’ markets, and community-supported agriculture groups that supply fresh and dried organic flowers at www.local harvest.org, or contact your state’s organic-certifying organization for the names of nearby growers. (A list of certifiers is available at www.reeusda.gov/smallfarm/guide/organz.htm.) Unfortunately, the organic-flower market is still small. A 1997 USDA report noted less than 300 acres of certified organic fields devoted to flowers (though they may be mixed in with other crops on additional acreage), primarily in California and Minnesota. That’s not even one percent of the 36,400 acres of cut flowers and bouquet greens grown outside.

If organic growers are scarce in your area, opt for potted indoor plants. Even when grown conventionally, a plant is preferable for the years of pleasure it can provide; only the freshest of cut flowers stay that way longer than a week. Dried decorations like leaves, branches, berries, and pussy willows are also lovely, long-lived alternatives. Better yet, give the object of your affection a bouquet homegrown with love. Urban gardeners can set up shop on a porch or in a window box (see www.soyouwanna.com/site/syws/wingarden/wingardenFULL.html for some tips), and many nurseries sell organic seeds and plants that you can grow guilt-free.


Jennifer Hattam is Sierra’s associate editor.

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