Flowers are exquisite expressions of nature’s essence. In many cultures, giving flowers as a gift embodies a universal desire for connection to other people, to the beauty of nature, and even to the sacred.

The rapidly growing floriculture industry is a heavy user of pesticides. Unfortunately, one woman’s present can be another woman’s poison.

A high percentage of the cut flowers sold commercially in the United States are imported, typically from countries that are near the equator with low labor costs. Half of all cut flowers sold in this country come from Columbia.
Why, you might wonder, are so many of the flowers sold commercially in this country imported? Extremely low wages and the absence of pesticide regulations make it cheaper to grow them in tropical countries and fly them to the United States than to grow them here.

And when they come in, they don’t carry pests, but they carry pesticides. In the United States, flowers are considered an agricultural product, so they must by law be pest-free when brought into this country. On the other hand, they are not considered an edible food product, so they are not inspected for pesticide residues. As a result, our trade regulations actually promote use of highly toxic poisons, including the notorious fumigant methyl bromide.

Flower growers use a variety of insecticides, fungicides, nematocides, and plant growth regulators. These chemicals can cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive and nervous system damage. They can affect anyone who might come into contact with the flowers, but they particularly cause harm to flower industry workers.

When you think of flowers you may imagine meadows full of nature’s exuberant beauty. But most cut flowers sold commercially are grown in tented greenhouses. Instead of meadows, picture acres and acres of plastic tents. The tents aren’t there to protect the plants from cold. They’re there to allow fumigation against tropical pests and molds.

Inside the tents, the soils and plants are dosed with chemicals. When a vast array of toxic chemicals are used in enclosed spaces, the risk of exposure through the skin and by inhalation is great. One study of flower greenhouses in Mexico’s state of Morelos found 36 different pesticides to be in widespread use, including the persistent and dangerous DDT, aldrin, and dieldrin. A study of flower workers in Costa Rica found that over 50% had at least one symptom of pesticide poisoning. In another study nearly 60% of workers in Ecuador showed poisoning symptoms.

International development agencies continue to push floriculture. They like to see third world countries selling flowers to the United States as a source of dollars which can then be used to pay back portions of these nation’s international debt. A problem, though, is that the flower industry is now competing for water and croplands near transportation centers, creating conflicts with indigenous farmers. In rural economies, this contributes to increasing food shortages. The large-scale production of resource-intensive, non-edible crops is undermining local efforts to create food security.

Meanwhile, the pesticides used in the industry don’t stay inside the tents. As Donella Meadows wrote, “They drift out, they walk out on the clothes of the workers, they enter the bodies of their children, filter into groundwater, work their way up the tropical food chain, at the top of which are songbirds whose return we await up north every spring. Some of those chemicals attack the ozone layer that stretches over and protects us. Some evaporate and fall as rain or snow anywhere from the North Pole to New England.” 

This is clearly another one of those situations where something comes cheap and easy to rich folks in the United States because it costs distant folks a lot, not just in lousy wages, but in health and in the debasement of their local resources and environment. That kind of cheap, however beautiful and predictable and convenient, I can’t enjoy. 

A number of organizations including Bread For The World, and Food First Information and Action Network began a European campaign to certify flower growers. 
To qualify for this certification, flower growers abide by an International Code of Conduct based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Flowers carrying this label may still be grown with pesticides, but the danger, both to workers and recipients, is greatly decreased.