Dangerous Beauty

Flower Farms May Threaten Workers and the Environment

Driving through central Costa Rica below the Tilaran Mountains, travelers see a hillside blanketed with exotic flowers. But the bucolic vision is immediately undercut by the sight of a semi-rusted drum, etched with a skull-and-crossbones warning. Workers—mostly women—dip plants ready for shipping into a noxious-looking brew. The workers are bare-armed, with no gloves or face masks to protect them from the pesticides vital to the international floriculture market.

Flowers are emerging as a stable and very marketable international crop, earning up to five times per acre what fruit crops bring in. To meet the high aesthetic standards of the American market (the largest for cut flowers) and to kill insects possibly harbored in the plants, growers use any means at their disposal—including banned and unregistered pesticides (up to one-fifth of pesticide use), heavy loads of synthetic growth hormones and fertilizers, and an illiterate, underpaid minority workforce, reports the World Resources Institute (WRI).

K. Rice/H. Armstrong Roberts

Pesticide use is not mandated by U.S. law, but bug-free flowers are. According to Wayne Burnett, import specialist with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Plant Protection and Quarantine Division, the risk of having valuable shipments rejected by customs because of insect infestations “stimulates people offshore to increase their pesticide use. There’s a lot of economic pressure to keep those shipments from being rejected.”

Gaston Dorren and Niala Maharaj, authors of The Game of the Rose, note that floriculture consumes more pesticides than any other agricultural sector. In order to meet the flurry of holiday sales, particularly Mother’s Day, U.S. florists have relied heavily upon imports in recent years to supplement flowers grown here, mainly in California. Only 40 percent of U.S. demand is met domestically.

Floral workers—the sprayers and handlers—suffer the brunt of the trade’s pesticide use: Two-thirds of Colombian flower workers suffer from headaches, nausea, impaired vision, rashes and asthma, reports Pesticide Action Network North America. A study published by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment reports that Dutch floral workers are exposed to pesticide concentrations of up to 60 times the amount considered safe.

Dr. Marion Moses of the San Francisco-based Pesticide Education Center says that many of the pesticides in use are highly toxic. “One of the chemicals widely used in greenhouses for flowers is Temik [aldicarb], and that has caused serious problems.” Methyl bromide—an ozone-destroyer and a Category I acute toxin, among the most dangerous toxic substances known—is also heavily used in Latin America and the U.S. on flower crops, according to WRI’s Lori Ann Thrupp. “Unlike food products, flowers are not inspected for pesticide residues by importers, so producers have relatively little concern,” she explains.

The industry defends its reliance on pesticides. The Society of American Florists’ Jennifer Sparks says most pesticides used are low in toxicity and have a short residual life. “In Colombia, flower growers can only use pesticides approved in the U.S.,” says Sparks. The Florist Review’s David Coake admits he hasn’t followed the issue closely. “We don’t know too much about pesticides, but we’ve heard there’s not a problem,” he says.

Consumers concerned about pesticide-doused flowers have a right to be, says Richard Wiles, vice president of research for the Environmental Working Group (EWG). According to a 1997 EWG study, California-grown roses had 1,000 times the level of cancer-causing pesticides as comparable food products. Wiles says that consumers are buying roses that, their toxicity levels suggest, should be handled by workers wearing protective gear. Testing the leaves and petals of roses from California, New Hampshire, Colorado, Canada and Colombia, EWG found two probable human carcinogens; three Category I pesticides (the most hazardous); and three neurotoxins—at up to 50 times the amount allowed in food.

Dr. Terril Nell, professor of floriculture at the University of Florida, argues that pesticide misuse is not as prevalent as some researchers suggest. “[Growers] have an incentive not to overapply pesticides” simply because they’re so expensive, he says. He does agree the industry could make more use of Integrated Pest Management (natural insecticides, organic methods and biological controls) to reduce pesticide use. Wiles thinks the problem is more basic than that. “Rose growers have repeatedly failed to adopt even the most rudimentary advances in pesticide management practices,” he says.

High demand puts pressure on the often-antiquated ships, delivery trucks and planes that transport the flowers, and results in both air and water pollution. In Colombia, one 35-ton cargo plane needs to leave Colombia every three hours to fly the country’s flowers to overseas markets. Researchers have witnessed some pesticides running undiluted right into the ground when spilled, or else suffusing the water table after repeated outdoor sprayings. The Netherlands, long famous as the global “flower capital,” has heavily contaminated water and air in its flower-growing regions, report Dorren and Maharaj. Water use is so intense that in developing regions, ground water levels have sunk and rivers have dwindled. A dismal lack of wastewater treatment, acknowledged by Nell, poses additional threats to regional water supplies.

Thrupp says part of the problem lies in unrestricted markets: If countries like the U.S. were to set guidelines for flower residues, producers would have incentives to lower their chemical use. Some European countries are already establishing cooperatives with growers concerned about pesticide use and workers’ health.

Lynn Byczynski, author of The Flower Farmer, says that organically-grown flowers are another sustainable option, available at local farmers’ markets or natural food stores. But she notes that consumers should ask where flowers originate and how they were grown, as she found pesticide-laden chrysanthemums at a natural foods market.