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While organic flowers are not necessarily fair trade (and vice versa), these two green attributes do have one great thing in common: they protect the health and livelihood of flower farmers. Buying organic is mostly about purchasing a product that has not been treated with pesticides or other chemicals, eliminating a major threat to the health of farmers and workers who grow the flowers. Fair trade ensures that farmers are adequately compensated for their product and guarantees humane labor conditions, which often include chemical-free growing conditions.

What to look for when choosing organic and fair trade flowers

To ensure that your flowers are, in fact, organic and/or fairly traded, look for third party certification of the grower's claims. In particular, look for:

  1. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Certification: Your best bet when seeking organic flowers is to look for the USDA Organic Seal. This seal is a third party guarantee that your flowers were organically grown, as defined by the National Organics Standards Board, USDA Organicwhich bans the use of harmful pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering. For more information on locating organic florists and farmers in your area, check out Local Harvest, EcoBusiness Links, or Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association listings
  2. VeriFlora: To ensure that the flowers you purchase are fairly traded, look for the VeriFlora label, which guarantees that both fresh cut flowers and potted plants are certified by America's most comprehensive sustainability standard. VeriFlora, working with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), VeriFlorapartners with farmers to ensure environmental sustainability, social and economic sustainability, and product integrity. In particular, the groups work toward organic growing standards, strict water and energy conservation policies, and fair labor policies. They were also the first to provide a fair trade label for fresh cut flowers and potted plants.
  3. TransFair: You can also seek out the TransFair label for fairly traded flowers (not to mention coffee, tea, cocoa, and more). The certification process focuses on fair wages and safe working conditions, vacation and sick leave, TransFair logoand community development. TransFair also encourages healthy environmental practices, including limited pesticide use, conservation of water, treatment of wastewater, and protection of ecosystems. Though product they certify are not currently guaranteed to be organic, the group is working to phase out as many agrochemicals as possible.

Find it! Organic and fair trade flowers

While local purchasing is the greenest way to go, if you can't find organic or fair trade options in your area, look for florists that serve green flower-seekers nationwide. Here are just a few:

Before you buy

Choosing organic or fair trade flowers may set you back a little more than non-certified bouquets because the cost of growing these flowers is slightly higher. Premiums are sometimes added, too, to be used for community development projects in flower farming communities.

Buying organic and fair trade flowers helps you go green because…

  • The flowers are grown in natural ways, without the use of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers, that don't harm the environment or your health.
  • Organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration.
  • Fair trade farming supports earth-friendly, often organic, practices that are safer for you and those laboring to bring blossoms to your table.

Worldwide, cut flowers are a $40 billion industry. Americans spend about $6.2 billion on them annually, accounting for 4 billion stems per year. More than 70 percent are imported from Latin America (mainly from Colombia and Ecuador).[1]

Because these flowers must enter the country bug- and fungus-free, farmers often saturate the flowers with pesticides and other chemicals, many of which are banned or restricted in the US. Unfortunately, flower imports are not inspected for pesticide residues because they are not food products. As a result, these chemicals don't stay put, but often wash off plants and through soil, blow across landscapes, and enter the air through evaporation. Once chemicals leak into the groundwater and soil, they can become part of the food chain and passed on to other animals. They can also adversely affect pollinators, including bees.

Organic benefits

Growing flowers organically avoids the use of these pesticides and may also be key in fighting global climate change. During a 23-season study of conventional versus organic farming methods, the Rodale Institute discovered that organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration. In agricultural applications, the more organic matter that is retained in the soil, the more carbon is sequestered. While conventional farming depletes organic matter through the use of chemical fertilizers, organic farming uses animal manure and cover crops, which actually build soil organic matter.

Organic farming further reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by using 37 percent fewer fossil fuels than conventional farming.[2] The Rodale Institute estimates that if all 160 million acres of corn and soybean farmland in the US were switched to organic farming methods, it would be equivalent to removing 58.7 million cars from the road, and would satisfy 73 percent of the proposed US Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction.[3] Even with these eco-benefits, only 6 percent of flowers sold in the US are certified as eco-friendly and socially responsible.[1]

Fair trade and flowers

Among the many challenges that South American and African flower workers face (including poverty wages and sexual harrassment), health-related problems rank high. Chemicals are sprayed on flower crops in enclosed, unventilated tents, making it difficult for workers to avoid inhaling or becoming covered in the stuff. According to a 2002 study conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), worker exposure to pesticides was highest in greenhouses, where up to 127 different chemicals are used, three classed as extremely toxic.[4]

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 such as dizziness and blurred vision.[5] A full two-thirds of Colombian flower laborers exhibit comparable illnesses, including impaired vision, neurological problems, and disproportionately high numbers of still births.[6] Children born to mothers laboring on flower farms are nearly 50 percent more likely to have been exposed to organophosphate pesticides in the womb, resulting in higher blood pressure and poorer spatial ability.[7]

Controversies

Biodynamic farming: Beyond organic?

The marriage of pesticide-free farming and astrology may strike some floral fans as arcane, but those who practice biodynamic—short for "biologically dynamic"—agriculture praise the practice for going "beyond organic." Based on the writings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture predates organic practices by about 20 years. Steiner believed that chemical pesticides and fertilizers were not only detrimental to the quality of crops, but also a sign of a spiritually absent farmer who failed to align him or herself with the cosmos. In its essence, biodynamic farming is all about ecological harmony between the crop, the farmer, and other organisms within the ecosystem.

Biodynamic crops are not regulated or certified by the USDA but by independent biodynamic agencies. Demeter International (headquartered in Brussels) is the global biodynamic certifier with a US branch based in Oregon.

Glossary

  • carbon sequestration: The process by which carbon is captured (in the form of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere and incorporated into soil, ocean, and plant matter.

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