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Pesticides kill the romance in a Valentine's Day bouquet

By Traci Waller
University Wire

Thinking about the origin of a dozen red roses – the quintessential no–brainer Valentine's Day gift – may put a damper on the holiday lovefest.

When the flowers arrive, a girl probably doesn't want to imagine their birth in Ecuador, where flowers are reared by masses of underpaid workers who suffer from immediate and long–term health problems stemming from pesticide exposure.

Many consumers aren't aware of their flowers' origins. And some consumers who are aware might write off flower workers' rights campaigns as part of a trendy fad encouraging Americans to spend more money on "environmentally friendly" goods.

Nora Ferm, the program coordinator for the International Labor Rights Fund, disagrees. Ferm has been in Ecuador since September to work with labor groups to campaign for workers' rights, especially flower workers.

"Many flower workers in Colombia and Ecuador have daily contact with toxic chemicals but are not given sufficient protective equipment," she said.

Ferm said Colombia and Ecuador export the most cut flowers, and workers there often don't have access to items such as waterproof covering for their clothes, gloves, rubber boots and face masks. As a result, she said, the workers suffer from a variety of health conditions, such as skin rashes, asthma, miscarriages, respiratory problems and neurological problems. And there's always a chance that when the flowers arrive at their final destination, the recipient might bury her nose into the bouquet and pick up traces of insecticide residue, Margaret Pullman said in a presentation for the North American Pesticide Action Network last June. There aren't many statistics to back that up because flowers aren't food and therefore aren't tested for pesticides very often, the presentation outlined. But that doesn't mean sending roses has to be harmful for the recipient or the grower. Flowers are going organic.

"Organic flower–growing is very simple," said Jim Seals, consultant for the Northwest Arkansas Rose Society. "You don't spray insecticides, and you use organic fertilizer."

When members of the society do use inorganic materials to grow roses, they protect themselves with gloves and ventilators – luxuries, Ferm said, that are unavailable to many South American workers.

"I would encourage U.S. consumers to send organic flowers to their loved ones on Valentine's Day because the workers who grew and harvested those flowers are much less likely to have serious health problems, and the surrounding environment is also less likely to be seriously contaminated," Ferm said.

But the Arkansas organic flower market doesn't provide for Valentine's Day roses. Local organic growers either have to grow flowers in a greenhouse or in compliance with the weather, and organic flowers are usually available at the Farmers' Markets from April to August. Area florists don't have easy access to organic flowers during winter.

Geneva Curin, a Bentonville florist, said she'd like to sell organic flowers at her shop, Bloom, but it's not possible.

"The only way to get organic flowers is when people sell them in gourmet grocery stores," Curin said. "Those are the only organic flowers that I've ever heard of. In the summertime it's possible that there are organic flowers sold at the Farmer's Market."

But Valentine's Day can't wait for summer; the holiday is one of the flower industry's most lucrative days of the year. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2004, flower sales topped $400 million – $40 million of that was spent on roses alone.

Aside from eschewing roses as Valentine's Day gifts, consumers do have the Internet. A quick search for organic red roses turns up at least two sites that specialize in organic flowers. One of those two,, offers a dozen certified organic red roses for $39.95 plus shipping. The other,, will ship a dozen red roses for $39.99 plus shipping costs. Consumers can also let local flower retailers know they want organic blooms, Ferm said. Going organic for the holiday might take more effort, but to some consumers it's worth the trouble.

Waller is a student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

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