Worldwide, cut flowers are a $40 billion industry. Americans alone spend about $6.2 billion on them each year, amounting to 4 billion stems annually. Unfortunately, all those colorful bouquets may be pleasing to the eye—and nose—but they also carry an environmental and human cost.
Blighted blossoms: the eco-hazards of flowers
In 1991, the US reduced tariffs on imported flowers from South American countries, a shift that effectively moved a great percentage of flower production to points south (more than 70 percent of flowers are now imported from Latin America). This change forced many local US flower farmers out of business, reducing California flower farms, in particular, from 45 to 10. Because most flowers are now shipped in cooled (read fuel-intensive) containers, a majority of bouquets come with a hefty eco-travel bill.
Imported flowers must enter the US bug- and fungus-free, spurring many growers to saturate blossoms with pesticides and other chemicals so they pass inspection. Many of these chemicals (some 127 in all) are banned or restricted in the US. Even worse, imported flowers are typically not inspected for pesticide residues because they're not food products, and therefore can carry relatively large quantities of chemicals compared to local varieties. ( Local flowers may be sprayed as well, but since they don’t undergo the same rigorous inspection process, they’re likely to contain far fewer of the harmful toxins found on imports.) Ultimately, some of these pesticides end up contaminating waterways, soil, and the air. In addition, these chemicals can also adversely affect pollinators, including bees.
Among the many challenges that flower workers face (including low wages and unfair labor practices), health-related problems rank high. Pesticides and other toxic chemicals, often sprayed on flower crops in enclosed, unventilated tents, cover the skin and are inhaled by workers. A United Nations study found that 60 percent of workers on flower farms in Ecuador, many of whom were children, suffered from pesticide poisoning, with symptoms ranging from dizziness to blurred vision. A full two-thirds of Colombian flower laborers exhibit comparable illnesses, including neurological problems and disproportionately high numbers of still births.
In addition, florists who handle flowers coated with pesticides and other agro-chemicals often suffer from dermatitis on their hands, and if the chemicals spread onto their clothes, they can expose others to these harmful toxins, as well.
A rosy outlook
These environmental and health problems linked to conventionally grown flowers has prompted a rise in the eco-friendly flower market. Organic and biodynamic flowers, for instance, are grown in ways that reduce related health risks, protect water and soil resources, and promote biodiversity. They're also known to be more fragrant and longer-lasting than their conventional cousins. The fair trade flower industry is also on the rise, especially with the relatively recent establishment of two certification bodies: Veriflora and Fair Trade Certification Flowers Program.
- biodynamic flowers: Flowers grown according to biodynamic principles, which include organic growing techniques, wildlife diversity, crop rotation, treating the farm as a complete ecosystem, and finding farm-based solutions to pest, disease, and fertility problems.
- fair trade: Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers.
- OrganicBouquet - Why Buy Organic Flowers?
- New American Dream - Buy organic flowers now: Why it’s important
- Environmental Working Group: Aims to protect the most vulnerable segments of the human population from health problems related to toxic contaminants through public education.
- Human Flower Project: An international news site and discussion forum about the link between humans and flowers.
- Organic Consumers Association: An online nonprofit campaigning on such issues as environmental sustainability, fair trade, and food safety.
- Organic Trade Association: A member-based business association in North America.
- Pesticide Action Network North America: Campaigning to replace chemical pesticides with eco-sound alternatives.
- Fair Trade USA: Working to empower farmers and farm workers to obtain fair prices and working conditions, as well as focus on environmental sustainability.
- US Labor Education in the Americas Project: A nonprofit working with Latin American countries to bring about more equitable labor standards, especially in countries where workers are employed by companies supplying products to US markets.
- AmyStewart.com - Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers
- Organic Consumers Association - Organic Flower Market Starting to Bloom
- Organic Consumers Association - Why Buy Organic Flowers for Valentine's Day & Everyday
- Time Magazine - Guilt-Free Valentines?
- AlterNet - Unhealthy Flowers: Why Buying Organic Should Not End With Your Food