Bye-Bye, Valentine’s Bouquet

February 17, 2011

This Monday was the first Valentine’s Day in five years that I did not receive a bouquet of red roses. (And thank goodness—I’d prefer not to write another confession!) I have been dropping hints about the unhealthy side effects of cut flowers to Channing since we started dating, but until this year he opted to ignore me—and because I’m such a sucker for presents, I didn’t put my foot down.

To tell the truth, though, whenever I see a florist’s bouquet, I can’t help but think of the scenes in Maria Full of Grace of Maria removing thorns from roses in the Colombian greenhouse (you know—before she decides to become a drug mule). From what I’ve read about floriculture in the last few days, those scenes are fairly accurate: Colombian women and girls of all ages, low wages, long hours, lots of protective gear.

The protective gear is necessary because a huge assortment of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are sprayed on the flowers to keep them free of bugs and looking fresh during their long haul to U.S. markets. In fact, because flowers are not edible, when they reach the United States, they are inspected only for insects and other pests, not for chemical residues. So, there is not only incentive to douse the blooms in chemicals, but there is also leeway to use chemicals that are banned or severely restricted in the States.

Exposure to these chemicals, which include neurotoxins, immune and endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens, poses a significant health risk to floriculture workers. A couple different studies of the cut-flower industry have suggested that workers exposed to pesticides have higher rates of miscarriages, premature births, and babies with congenital defects. Other studies have shown that more than 60 percent of all workers suffer headaches, nausea, blurred vision, or fatigue, and that exposure to organophosphates increases their risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

In addition, when these toxins find their way into surface and groundwater via runoff, they become a problem for the community at large. Given that as much as three gallons of water are necessary to produce a single rose bloom, waterways near floriculture operations are not only polluted, they are also severely depleted. This is the case in Bogotá, where streams, springs, and wetlands are disappearing.

The good news is a number of alternatives to conventionally grown flowers are becoming available. Fair Trade, VeriFlora, and Rainforest Alliance labels indicate flowers that were grown and harvested according to certain standards of sustainability and equity. (You can find out exactly what those standards are by visiting the programs’ websites.) If you can’t find an organic or otherwise certified bouquet in your local grocery store or florist, you can buy one online at Organic Bouquet. Or, if you’re looking for something grown locally, check out the options in your neighborhood on Local Harvest.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I will be forgoing fresh-cut flowers these six months. Lucky for me, though, I bought some pretty dried lilacs at the farmers market back in November, and they are still as lovely as ever. Those of you who grow flowers in the summer months might consider prolonging your enjoyment of the blooms by drying a few for the winter.

Finally, if you’re interested in doing some additional reading on this topic, here are a few informative articles:

  1. Sheryl Eisenberg, “Putting the Bloom Back,” This Green Life, March 2005.
  2. Roger Harris, “Think That Your Gift Is Pesticide-Free? Give Organic Flowers and It Will Be,” NaturalNews, May 10, 2008.
  3. John McQuaid, “The Secrets Behind Your Flowers,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2011.
  4. Amy Stewart, “Pick Your Poison,” New York Times, May 14, 2006.
  5. David Tenenbaum, “Would a Rose Not Smell as Sweet?Environmental Health Perspectives 110, no. 5 (May 2002).
  6. Ginger Thompson, “Behind Roses’ Beauty, Poor and Ill Workers,” New York Times, February 13, 2003.
  7. Joby Warrick, “Pesticides and Cut Flowers,” National Wildlife Federation Green Living Archives, June 1, 2000.
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