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Connect the Dots: Where Did Those Roses Come From?

By Francesca Lyman

Roses: navigating a thorny supply chain

Are you bringing home a dozen roses for your sweetheart on Valentines' Day? Nothing may sound more romantic, and it's certainly less fattening than chocolates. But there's more than meets the eye — and the nose — when it comes to roses.

The last thing your lover will ask you is where that lovely bouquet of Freedom Roses came from. Yet America's most popular cut flower and the centerpiece of the floral industry's biggest day of the year may have flown 5,000 miles before making its way to your supermarket or florist. Despite its breathtaking beauty, that rose is likely bred more for hardiness than fragrance, and may not even smell like a garden rose.

Today some 78 percent of the 4 billion cut flower stems purchased in the U.S. — including the roses bought on Valentine's Day — come from Colombia and Ecuador, where they are grown in large production greenhouses, then harvested, sorted and shipped out around the world. Roses are the most important traded product of the cutflower industry and play a key role in the $20 billion U.S. floral industry.

Thousands of miles from the colorful, exuberant displays of blooms that explode in supermarket floral departments and florists all over the country, however, lie a host of questionable practices that may have you thinking differently about those roses this Valentine's Day.

Growing roses in big Colombian and Ecuadorian production greenhouses

It starts with the land, acres and acres of it given over to greenhouses and hoophouses, encased in plastic. Surrounded by fences and patrolled by security guards, these compounds are where the millions of stems of roses headed to North America get their start.

"I remember when it was all dotted with family farms, and now the Sabana is blanketed in one vast plastic sheet," says Carolina DelGado of South Florida Jobs with Justice in Miami, who grew up in the savanna around Bogota. Colombia alone employs 115,000 flower workers. "But these maquilladores ("sweat shops") — and I feel confident in labeling them that because these are huge facilities with very tight security — have been known for horrifying working conditions and lax regulations," says DelGado.

Apart from the human cost, the cut flower industry is consuming large swaths of land in South America and Africa. Researchers at the Universidad Externado de Colombia argue that floriculture has brought a new economy to the country but has used up "water, space, and soil."

"The U.S. has been slow to get on this bandwagon, compared to Canada and Europe," says Feveyear, "People are not educated enough about the hidden, but real, hazards to the environment and to workers."

Growing big-headed, long-stemmed roses

IThe anchor of the cut flower supply chain in Ecuador and Colombia are roses grown as high as 9,000 feet up the slopes of volcanoes, in the dry fertile soil of places like the Sabana, outside Bogota, Colombia, or Cotopaxi, outside Quito, Ecuador. Farms here cultivate gigantic luxury roses like the Esperance, which has blooms as wide as 6 inches across and stems 3 to 5 feet tall. When agronomists discovered in the 1960s that they could grow these beautiful roses in the Andes and then fly them within a few hours into the United States, the industry soon began moving to South America from places where roses had been cultivated domestically.

The flowers are helped along, growers say, by intense sunlight, dry air and year-round equatorial temperatures. But as the quality of these roses continues to go up, writes Amy Stewart, author of Flower Confidential, pressure mounts on these countries' flower workers and their environments, resulting in a host of problems, from low pay and child labor to misuse of hazardous chemicals.

Harvesting roses by hand: keeping the rose alive with water and chemicals

To cultivate that perfect rose, growers often resort to chemical weed and insect killers. Alejandro Boada of Universidad Externado de Colombia says pesticides have been found 300 to 400 meters deep in the soils, which have been unable to filter these poisons. Meanwhile, demand for water has also been found to strain local aquifers, on which other farms depend.

In Ecuador, researchers found that there was far more water contamination in floriculture growing areas than in areas devoted to potatoes, barley and other kinds of traditional agriculture. According to researchers with the CEAS' EcoHealth Program, operating in Ecuador's northern Andes, a growing number of cut-flower farms growing roses do comply with international codes of conduct and green "flower label programs." "But most farms — some 80 percent — unfortunately [avoid] responsibilities to their working force and environment."

Post-harvesting, using water and chemicals banned in the U.S.

The 200 million rose stems that arrive in the U.S. for Valentine's Day each year require tons of pesticides, and it's estimated that some 20 percent of the chemicals used are illegal here. A 2007 study by the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) found that more than 66 percent of Ecuadorian and Colombian flower workers were plagued by work-related health problems — including skin rashes, respiratory problems, and eye problems — due to toxic pesticides and fungicides. ILRF also found that "flower workers experience higher-than-average rates of premature births, congenital malformations and miscarriages," and were subjected to 70- or 80-hour work weeks in high season.

But the risks of pesticide use in floriculture are not confined to Latin America. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S floriculture industry is one "of the heaviest users of pesticides in all of agriculture." Some of the highest-use pesticides in California's floral industry, for example, include methyl bromide, a hazardous chemical that is also a top ozone-depleter; acephate, an organophosphate neurotoxin hazardous to humans and highly toxic to bees; and chlorothalonil, a "likely carcinogen." Methyl Bromide is being phased out elsewhere, but the floriculture industry has won repeated exemptions to the Montreal Protocol, the landmark treaty phasing out substances that deplete the ozone layer.

Transportation: "flower miles?"

The rush to get flowers from their home in the soil to their ultimate destination in a vase has always been an intense business, going back as far as the days when cut flowers traveled by railway. Daffodil farmers once loaded their bunches onto coffins, as U.K. Guardian columnist Leo Hickman writes, exploiting the fact "that the dead always traveled free on God's Wonderful Railway."

But the cost of flying flowers thousands of miles from farms in Latin America and Africa to wholesale warehouses, markets and other distribution points, then shipping them in refrigerator trucks, is anything but free: It costs fuel, especially with heavy packaging in water, and that has a major carbon footprint.

In Britain, supermarket retailers Tesco and Marks & Spencer now place airplane labels on imported products — including flowers — as an indication of their "miles traveled" to discourage consumers from purchasing goods whose transit to Europe pollutes the environment.

So far, the same practice hasn't been adopted by U.S. cut flower exporters, but some online floral retailers like sell flowers with carbon offsets to address these factors.

Inspection and the "cold chain"

Roses cut high in the Andes are prepared and dipped in a final preservative in order to never leave the "cold chain," a climate-controlled environment just above freezing. Once it's off the cargo plane in Miami, that Freedom Rose passes from refrigerator trucks into cooling lockers and refrigerators for repacking and distribution, thence into more coolers when it reaches wholesalers, and finally that florist fridge.

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) inspects crates of cut flowers for pests, and Homeland Security routinely checks for any contraband or cocaine that might have crept into shipments. But cut flowers are not inspected for chemical residues, which can and do remain on rose petals. In fact, if the flowers are found to carry insects or other pests, they're often fumigated further.

Because flowers aren't a food product, there's no requirement for flowers to be free of toxic residues, so some consumer groups caution flower buyers to wash their hands after touching them. Seattle florist Melissa Feveyear, of TerraBella Flowers, warns her brides to be careful of adorning their wedding cakes with roses unless they're cultivated organically.

Flower Confidential author Amy Stewart quotes an Ecuadorean grower saying, "I wouldn't recommend taking a bath in rose petals."

Arriving at the retail counter

By the time those Freedom Roses get to the retail counters at grocery stores and in floral shops, they've traveled thousands of miles. But even before they reach their destination, these flowers come wrapped in oodles of packaging and protection. Miami International Airport, which receives more than two-thirds of all imported cut flower shipments in the United States, clears approximately 32,500 boxes of cut flowers each day. According to the USDA's APHIS program,the number of boxes triples during the Valentine's Day peak.

That's not even counting the plastic sleeves and vases holding the flowers, or the other retail items that get crammed into Valentine's Day baskets:foam and plastic bears, glitter-wrap, flocked hearts and cupids. New businesses are exploring more eco-friendly alternatives. Blumebox sells bouquets in easy-to-recycle cardboard box vases that come with a plastic liner.

Although no full study has been done on the impact of all this packaging and waste around one day, Tom Watson, Coordinator of the National Waste Prevention Coalition, sums it up: "The impact has got to be huge, from the trees that are felled to create the boxes, and the crates and pallets used to transport these flowers, to the packaging's ultimate disposal in landfills, where cardboard decays into methane, a potent greenhouse gas."

Rosier Valentines: lower-impact cut flower alternatives

In response to all these environmental and health concerns, there's a new, more sustainable flower industry beginning to sprout up. It's small now, but gaining ground quickly, seeking to make positive changes in virtually every aspect floriculture touches, from habitats, land and soil, to controlling pesticides, conserving water, and protecting social and economic justice for those who grow the flowers.

"Nobody wants to buy a bargain item if they know it's being bought at the expense of the environment or on the backs of workers who are being unfairly treated," says Anthony Marek of Transfair USA, which certifies consumer products for social and environmental sustainability. Transfair is rolling out a new Fair Trade certification systems for flowers this Valentine's Day, much like its labels for coffee and chocolates.

Meanwhile, the Veriflora program, which certifies flowers as healthy and sustainably cultivated, is going into its second year. And new certification systems, in force in Europe since 2002, are gaining ground in the United States, too. (see sidebar).

"We think 2008 will be the year for greening the flower industry here," pledges Gerald Prolman, founder of and

Where to find organic and fair trade flowers:

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