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To Pull a Thorn From the Side of the Planet

By MIREYA NAVARRO
TODAYShow.com contributor
Published: February 3, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Calif.

THE Bonny Doon Garden Company, a downtown flower kiosk here, had signs posted all around it last week for Valentine's Day, but the sales pitch wasn't just about romance.

A bucket held red and fuchsia anemones that were "organic." Ecuadorean roses the size of baseballs were "certified." Roses from a nearby farm were "locally grown."

Was the kiosk selling flowers, or lettuce?

Pesticide contamination doesn't usually come to mind when ordering long-stemmed roses for Valentine's Day. But that is precisely what florists like Bonny Doon are asking their customers to think about. Teresa Sabankaya, the shop's owner, said that when she opened in 2003, "some people would look at me like, 'Are you nuts?' "

Now, at least, "people become engaged," she said. "Forty percent of people will say: 'That's nice. Why would it matter? We're not eating them.' "

True, flowers are rarely eaten. They aren't worn against the skin like organic cotton, or rubbed on the body like soap. Perhaps that's why organic flowers have not been a big business, especially compared with organic fruits and vegetables. The Organic Trade Association says organic food and beverages had $17 billion in sales in 2006. Flowers — a $21-billion-a-year industry — brought in $19 million in organic sales.

That may be changing. The environmentally correct flower is now sold on Web sites like organicbouquet.com, by small florists like Ms. Sabankaya and by big retailers like Sam's Club and FTD, the floral delivery network, which last year introduced a line of sustainably grown irises and lilies from California and roses from Ecuador.

And as in other industries with increasing demand for green products, the floral industry is debating what is environmentally correct. Should flowers be organic — that is, grown without synthetic or toxic pesticides? Or should the emphasis be on fair trade, meaning that the workers who grow and cut them are safe and well paid? Or should consumers favor flowers grown locally, not flown or trucked over long distances? In other words, what, exactly, is a green flower?

A vast majority of cut flowers sold in the United States, 79 percent, are imported, mostly from countries with mild climates, like Colombia and Ecuador. But only a small minority of flower farms have adopted environmentally friendly methods, like banning toxic chemicals for pest control, said Nora Ferm of the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy organization where she is the program director of a "fairness in flowers" public education campaign that began a few years ago.

And few of those farms, Ms. Ferm said, bother with occupational health and safety measures for workers, who can suffer pesticide-related illnesses like headaches, rashes and birth abnormalities among their children.

Ms. Ferm said that "just using less-toxic pesticides would be much better for the environment and the workers."

Whether consumers can be roused to passion about these issues is a challenge that distinguishes the fledgling green-flower movement from other campaigns for environmental awareness. But big environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council have added flowers to their agenda and are encouraging the public to look for floral eco-labels that can now be found in flower shops, grocery stores and other flower retailers.

The labels emphasize different aspects of sustainability. Fair Trade and VeriFlora, two big organizations whose labels appear on flowers sold in the United States, impose strict environmental and labor standards on farms they audit, though they do not require them to be fully organic. Use of pesticides is limited, and workers must be paid fairly; Fair Trade also requires investments in community programs like child care. (Full criteria are at veriflora.org and transfairusa.org.)

Flowers labeled "USDA Organic" — government certification that no toxic or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers were used — are hard to find beyond farmers' markets or online distributors like Organicstyle.com. While organic flowers do exist, mass production would be difficult for most farms because of the investment and technical assistance required, Ms. Ferm said. And more research is needed into ways to control pests and diseases, other experts said.

MICHAEL SKAFF, FTD's director of design and product development, said he decided to stock flowers certified by VeriFlora, which also vouches for quality, rather than organic ones, because some organic flowers have blemishes and smaller, imperfectly shaped petals.

"We want the consumers to be happy at the end of the day," he said. "People buy sustainable flowers because they know they're grown in environments that are good for everybody."

But for the most part, florists say, organic and sustainably grown flowers are indistinguishable from those conventionally grown. (As with conventional flowers, durability and fragrance depend more on the variety and breeding than how the flowers were grown.) And unlike organic fruit and vegetables, they usually cost about the same as pesticide-laden versions, or slightly more.

Still, the most environmentally conscious flower buyers are bothered by buying flowers flown and trucked over long distances, no matter how sustainable. Amy Stewart, author of "Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers" (Algonquin Books, 2007), said buying local flowers should be the first choice.

But she said workers should also be supported. Visiting South America, she said, she found that "life on any certified farm is better — it doesn't matter which certification it is." Besides, she noted, it is difficult to assess what is greener: large loads of flowers transported over long distances efficiently or a smaller number grown locally, but requiring a heated greenhouse and a trip to a farmers' market in a pickup truck. "How do I compare the energy efficiency per flower?" she asked.

Peter J. Moran, chief executive of the Society of American Florists, which includes retailers and growers, said even growers not certified by any program are already moving toward more earth-friendly practices.

In California, where most American flower production is based, California Pajarosa Floral in Watsonville invested about $100,000 to comply with all regulations necessary to be certified by VeriFlora, said Paul Furman, the manager. He said his company, which grows roses hydroponically in 17 acres of greenhouses and is one of the nation's largest flower growers, would have had to spend more if it hadn't already been using some green practices, like using predatory mites to kill thrips and spider mites that discolor petals and damage foliage.

But Mr. Furman sees a payoff. "We want to be part of pioneering something that's good for the industry," he said. "We're in the infancy stage of this, so we don't know what to expect, but we do know that the whole world is going green."

Other entrepreneurs have taken up the cause. Hannah Ling opened a shop, Gardenia Organic, selling organic and sustainable flowers, in December in the West Village in New York. Ms. Ling, a former management consultant from Great Britain, said she spent her life savings on her shop.

"I'm kind of on a mission to show that you don't have to sacrifice quality if you're green," she said.

At Ms. Sabankaya's kiosk in Santa Cruz, some walk-in customers admitted not caring much about where their flowers came from as long as they smelled good and had pretty colors. "The cars and the coal and the petro, that's where we have to make a change," said Arlene La Borde, 64, who retired as buyer for Lockheed Martin.

But Ms. Sabankaya, an organic gardener who grows some of the flowers she sells and dresses them up with organic myrtle, rose-scented geranium and other fragrant herbs, said she does a brisk Valentine's Day business — she sold 2,000 roses last year — and receives e-mail messages all the time from curious customers.

One, Karen Wolowicz, 28, a policy analyst at a local conservation agency, wanted to know which organic flowers would be available in early May for her wedding in Carmel, Calif., next year. Ms. Wolowicz, who lives in the San Francisco area, said she can't afford a hybrid car, but she shops for organic food in farmers' markets and wants to do her part in minimizing harm to the planet.

"It's the little things that you do that make a difference," she said. "And as Californians, we have great flowers and great food, so we might as well enjoy it and share it."



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