Dear EarthTalk: What environmental and health issues, if any, are associated with cut flowers?
—Olivia Clarkson, Charlottesville, VA
More than half of all cut flowers sold in the United States at florists and supermarket chains are imported. Holland is the largest source and several Latin American countries, including Columbia and Ecuador, vie for second place. Because flowers are not food, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t regulate them or inspect them for pesticide residues. Nonetheless, U.S. Customs will reject a whole shipment of flowers if they contain a single insect, and consumers for the most part will reject any bunch that is less than perfect.
It is no surprise, then, that cut flowers are one of the world’s most pesticide-intensive crops. Flower workers, of which there are roughly 200,000 worldwide, pay the heaviest price. In Ecuador, the second-largest exporter to the U.S., 60 percent of workers suffer from headaches, nausea, blurred vision or fatigue, according to a 1999 study by the International Labor Organization. Doctors in Cayambe, the rose capital of Ecuador, confirm these findings and add birth defects, sterility and miscarriages to the list.
Flower exporters use a variety of fertilizers, insecticides and fumigants, including the highly toxic methyl bromide, which is also known to harm the Earth”s protective ozone layer. Even in the U.S. flowers are grown with large amounts of pesticides in closed greenhouse environments, resulting in compromised worker health and flowers laden with pesticide residues. California roses, for example, in a 1997 Environmental Working Group study, were found to have 1,000 times the level of cancer-causing pesticides as comparable food products.
In 2001, Gerald Prolman, who founded Made in Nature, the first distributor of organic produce to supermarket chains, launched Organic Bouquet with the idea of selling organic flowers over the Internet. Now Organic Bouquet flowers are available at Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Trader Joe”s and other natural foods chains, as well as on the company”s website.
Organic Bouquet uses organic flower growers primarily in the western United States, but also in Ecuador and Colombia where Prolman discovered that, because of the prohibitive cost of pesticides and artificial fertilizers, a few growers had developed natural alternatives and were still producing perfect flowers. “They were using organic techniques without even knowing it,” he recalls.
Two other online purveyors of organic flowers include Manic Organics of Lawrenceville, Georgia, which specializes in roses, and Seabreeze Organic Farm in San Diego. But one need not take to the Internet and wait for UPS to deliver in order to “say it with organic flowers.” Organic, pesticide-free flowers can be bought in season from your local farmer”s market. If you can’t find one, the website of Local Harvest maintains a nationwide directory. You can buy from the company”s online store, which helps small farms find markets for their products beyond their local areas, but their search engine can help you establish direct contact with small farms in your local area.
CONTACTS: Organic Bouquet, (877) 899-2468, www.organicbouquet.com; Manic Organics Flowers, (678) 377-8258, www.manicorganicsflowers.com ; SeaBreeze Organic Farm, (858) 481-0209, www.seabreezed.com ; Local Harvest, (831) 475-8150, www.localharvest.org/organic-flowers.jsp.