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Unhealthy Flowers: Why Buying Organic Should Not End With Your Food

  • Unhealthy Flowers: Why Buying Organic Should Not End With Your Food
    By Jason Mark
    AlterNet, 2/14/07
    Straight to the Source

Conventionally grown cut flowers are often raised in environments that are unhealthy and abusive to workers. Responsible alternatives have been difficult, if not impossible, to find -- until now.

In recent years conscious consumers have enjoyed a spike in the availability of socially and environmentally responsible products. Worried about sweatshop shoes? Try on a pair of Adbusters' Blackspot sneakers. Concerned that your clothes were made in a dismal factory where the workers are paid starvation wages? Go with an American Apparel T-shirt or a No Sweat hoodie. If pesticide residues on your vegetables and hormone-laced meat are your worry, then head for the organic section at the supermarket. Your morning coffee can easily be fair trade-certified, as can the bananas that you put on your cereal.

But what about the flowers on the coffee table, or the bouquet you were going to buy for Valentine's Day? Where were those stems grown, by whom and under what conditions? What are the sustainable and socially responsible options when buying flowers?

Until now, there haven't been encouraging answers to those questions. Conventionally grown cut flowers are most often raised in chemical-intensive systems that expose workers to toxins that can make them sick -- sweatshops in the greenhouses, you could say. Responsible alternatives have been difficult, if not impossible, to find.

That's about to change. This Valentine's season marks the first time that environmental- and worker-friendly flowers will be widely available to consumers in the United States. A new certification system called Veriflora has been set up to guarantee that your flowers weren't grown under abusive conditions. Most Veriflora-certified producers use organic methods; the rest are expected to provide a plan for how they are reducing chemical use and converting to organic. All must show that they are protecting the safety of their workers. Later this year, TransFairUSA -- the nonprofit agency that certifies fair trade coffee, chocolate and bananas -- is expected to release a fair trade seal for flowers.

But there is a huge obstacle facing these well-meaning efforts: Indifference. Here in the United States, there is not much public awareness of the dangers associated with cut flowers. Consequently, demand for sustainable flowers is almost nonexistent. Flower growers, retailers and activists agree that the desire for organically grown flowers is going to have to increase for the budding organic flower industry to succeed.

"There's a real gap out there in terms of thinking -- people think we should buy organic only if we are eating the product," Josh Dautoff, a sustainable flower grower in Watsonville, Calif., said. His company, Dautoff Exotics, used to be a chemically reliant operation when it was run by his parents. Now Josh, 31 years old, is converting his fields and greenhouses to organic. "It's ironic that people will pay more money for organic food for their dinner plate because they are afraid of chemicals. But then they will buy conventionally grown flowers that are covered in chemicals for the centerpiece of their dinner table. ... And those chemicals will catch up with people. Maybe not through their mouths, but through the water and air."

Greenhouse sweatshops

Cut flowers are big business. The U.S. floral market is a $20 billion-a-year industry that supplies all of our Mother's Day bouquets, condolence baskets and Valentine's roses. The vast majority of the 4 billion flower stems sold in the United States every year come from Latin America, countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, whose flowers have entered the United States duty-free since the 1980s.

Eliminating import taxes on South American flowers was intended as a way to encourage farmers in those countries to grow something other than coca leaf. An unintended byproduct of the off-shoring of the flower industry has been an increase in the use of chemicals. All flowers that enter the United States are closely inspected for pests and diseases. Because growers fear the high costs of having their flowers fail inspection -- and because consumers expect for their flowers to look immaculate -- they pour on the fungicides and pesticides.

The consequences are frightening, according to research by the International Labor Rights Fund and US LEAP. For example, a survey of workers on flower plantations near Bogotá found that employees were exposed to 127 different pesticides, three of which are considered extremely toxic. One-fifth of the chemicals used in flower production in South America -- products such as DDT and methyl-bromide -- are restricted or banned in the United States and Europe. Since environmental laws in South America are either lax or not enforced, chemical runoff into waterways is common, contributing to species decline.

Workers are often sickened after applying herbicides, fungicides and pesticides without proper protection. Two-thirds of Colombian flower laborers suffer from impaired vision, respiratory and neurological problems; still births and babies born with congenital malformations are disproportionately high among women who have worked in floriculture. When workers try to organize unions to defend their interests, their efforts are typically met with harassment.

"Over the years there have been many thorough studies, which I cite in the book, looking at abuses in the flower industry," Amy Stewart, author of the new book Flower Confidential , told AlterNet. "The flower industry's response has been, 'Oh things aren't that bad. That wasn't a typical farm.' What one of the labor organizers told me is that there are good farms and bad farms, but they all need to produce the same flower."

For U.S. consumers concerned about exploitation in the flower industry, there have been few options but to boycott cut flowers altogether. But in solidarity circles, boycotts are often a controversial tactic since they are likely to harm the very people they are intended to help -- the nursery workers whose livelihoods depend on robust flower sales.

To meet flowers lovers' desire for beautiful blooms, and to do so in a way that doesn't harm people or wreck the planet, a small group of environmentally minded entrepreneurs is trying to come up with ways to sell the American public on the idea of organic flowers.

Red, white -- and green

Organic Bouquet is one of the companies leading the move toward more sustainable flower production. Launched in 2001 by Gerald Prolman, a California businessman who previously ran a successful organic food business, Organic Bouquet set out to establish a niche market for organic flowers. It was a daunting task. Prolman lacked capital, a base of suppliers and even consumer demand. Essentially, he had to create not just a business, but an entire industry, from scratch.

"We began with a series of monumental challenges," Prolman wrote in a recent email interview. "The goal was to establish the market for organic flowers where commercial supply at that time was nonexistent and consumer awareness was minimal. ... Although we were able to start up with a few local growers, we did not have sufficient supplies or the breadth of product line to adequately build the company and supply customers year-round with their floral needs."

A key problem has been convincing flower wholesalers and retails florists that if they did start offering organic flowers, consumers would purchase them. Flower grower Dautoff says making this case has not been easy.

"We've found very limited interest from wholesalers to sell our flowers as certified organic," Dautoff said. "Last summer I grew thousands of bunches of chemical-free sunflowers. And the wholesaler wouldn't even label them as such. They told me that the reason why is that people don't care."

Recent visits to floral shops in the politically progressive San Francisco Bay Area confirm this. Not a single florist said there was customer interest in organic flowers. Why? Because, all the florists agreed, people don't eat flowers.

This apparent indifference on the part of consumers represents the biggest challenge for the nascent industry: Will people buy it? If you build the supply, will the demand eventually come?

Prolman is optimistic it will.

"No market? This is exactly what traditional retailers said 17 years ago about organic produce," Prolman wrote in his email. "Natural-product shoppers today are making purchasing decisions based on concerns about personal health, social justice and environmental sustainability. ... The reality is that the demand is inherent, and I base this theory on the notion of the basic goodness of humankind."

Global or local?

Beyond the question of conventional vs. organic lies another issue for consumers to navigate -- global vs. local. For even if a Colombian flower is grown under organic conditions, is it truly sustainable if it needs to be shipped thousands of miles wrapped in gobs of packaging? Some industry observers say that the globalized flower market, dependent as it is on plastic and petroleum, contributes to larger problems such as climate change. To compound the dilemma, there is very little local or regional flower production left in the United States; after WWII, most flower growing moved to California, and, as noted earlier, in the last 20 years has been transferred overseas.

"Try to find something that's locally produced," Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), said. (As part of its Valentine's Day shopping guide, the OCA is encouraging people to shop with Organic Bouquet.) "It's really not sustainable the way the market is set up now."

John Nevado -- a young Swedish businessman whose South American organic farms, Nevado Roses, are among the primary suppliers for Organic Bouquet -- says that he doesn't believe global flower production is necessarily unsustainable. He points out that most of the flowers are shipped in the bottom of the cargo holds of planes that are making the trip anyway. And he says his company uses recycled materials in the packaging for its flowers.

"As always, you are caught between providing the customer a well-packaged, sensitive luxury product and reducing packaging to the minimum," Nevado wrote in a recent email interview. "We are still trying to find balance here. ... We try our best and work hard to run our business in the most sustainable manner."

So what's a concerned shopper to do? Whenever possible, buy organically grown flowers. And, says author Amy Stewart, make sure to clearly communicate to the florist why organic is important to you. "People should ask where flowers were grown and how they were grown," Stewart said. "Florists are under the impression that these issues don't matter."

Even better, says Ronnie Cummins, go a step further and seek out flowers grown close to your home. "Buy organic, buy fair trade, and if at all possible, buy local and buy regional."

Either way, the key is send signals to the marketplace that reflect your broader values.

"If retailers get this message from enough consumers, they will eventually make changes and demand eco-flowers from their vendors," Prolman wrote. "The product is available today, and there is no justifiable reason for them to not do it. They just need to hear it from enough people, and when they act, millions [fewer] pounds of toxic chemicals will be used in floral production."

And if your neighborhood florist is not ready to listen? Well, then there's always organic, fair trade chocolate to give your sweetie this Valentine's Day.


Jason Mark is working on his second book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots, to be published fall 2007 by Polipoint Press. He co-manages Alemany Farm in San Francisco.

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