While the food we eat is under increasing scrutiny concerning its sustainability and health effects, the cut-flower industry, operating in full force tomorrow on Valentine’s Day, has largely escaped inspection. However, the eco and romantic appeal of fresh flowers quickly disappears when we learn that these blooms are usually doused in massive amounts of pesticides, have undergone long, energy intensive transportation and were cultivated by growers in poor working conditions.
A new US standard, Veriflora, will require complying growers to take a whole range of sustainable agriculture methods into consideration, going beyond the existing organic flower certification. Veriflora farms must incorporate fair treatment of workers, water conservation, waste management, and other forms of ecological protection, while the workers themselves have the right to organize and be paid for overtime and health benefits.
Roses can contain up to 50 times the amount of pesticides that are legally allowed on the food we eat. In the USA, imported flowers must be free of pests and no final testing for chemical residues is required, thus toxic pesticides are used liberally and heavily.
As the situation has worsened, the majority of flower growers for the US market have been exposed to pesticides that have been long-banned in America. 70 percent of US flowers are imported from Colombia, Ecuador and other Latin American countries. In 2002, a survey found 8,000 Colombian flower workers had been exposed to 25 carcinogenic or highly toxic pesticides.
A study by the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), found that two-thirds of Colombian and Ecuadorian flower workers suffer work-related health problems. These include impaired vision and neurological problems and some women giving birth to stillborn infants, or seeing their children die within a month after birth.
In addition, the International Labor Organization estimates that 20 percent of flower workers in Ecuador are children, whose immature immune systems and organs make them more vulnerable to toxic dangers than adults.