Make Sure Your Valentine's Day Roses Are Green

It's February 14 and you've just handed your sweetie a gorgeous bouquet of roses. Tears spring to her eyes and her cheeks begin to flush bright red. But wait: is this love or just an allergic reaction?

Valentine's Day is a time for flowers, chocolates and the occasional diamond. But each of these love-gifts can come with curses. Chocolates can involve child labor, smuggled gems can support rebel armies (proof that diamonds truly are a guerilla's best friend), and flowers can arrive perfumed with pesticides.

According to the Society of American Florists, more that 175 million roses will be planted, reared, sheared, and shipped thousands of miles to feed the Valentine's Day market in the US alone. But be careful when you chose your spray of roses because there's a better-than-even chance that those roses have been sprayed - with herbicides and pesticides.

Stop and Smell the Dursban When it comes to sniffing most commercial bouquets, wary shoppers would be better advised to turn up their noses instead. "All of these cut flowers and plants are heavily treated with pesticides," University of Florida Anthropologist Elizabeth Guillette, Ph.D. recently advised The Green Guide. "It's important to avoid touching the blossoms and to handle them as little as possible, and then be sure to wash your hands." Guillette is not over-reacting. She has spent time in Mexico charting elevated instances of stillbirths and early infant deaths among female flower workers whose children were exposed to organophosphate pesticides in the womb.

As author Amy Stewart points out in Flower Confidential, the rose, tulip and carnation has become just another commodity in the global marketplace. "Flowers are created in laboratories, bred in test tubes, grown in factories, harvested by machines, packed into boxes, sold at auctions, and then flown across oceans and continents." The lily's once-intoxicating aromas have been bred-out in the interests of long-distance durability. In exchange, the ships, trains and aircraft that move flowers around the globe leave the atmosphere scented with asphyxiating vapors of incinerated kerosene, coal and bunker oil.

Flowers: A Blooming Global Business According to Census Bureau figures, Americans spent more than $400 million on flowers in 2004 - $40 million just on roses. The US consumed nearly 1.5 billion roses in 2005. More than 93% of America's flowers are imported, mostly from Colombia and Ecuador. Colombia leads the petal-packing pack, with more than 2.3 billion rose stems sold in 2005, a veritable floral tide that netted $418,345,000 in earnings. Nearly 60 percent of flowers sold in America were plucked from the soil of Colombia.

If your flowers come from Colombia, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) wants you to know that they are probably genetically engineered blooms, showered with pesticides and raised inside a gigantic factory farm owned by Dole Foods. Dole, which presides over Colombia's largest flower plantation fired 200 employees last year after they staged a protest over working conditions. ILRF Program Coordinator Nora Ferm reports that Latin America's flower workers "have daily contact with toxic chemicals but are not given sufficient protective equipment" so it's no surprise that they suffer "skin rashes, asthma, miscarriages, respiratory problems and neurological problems."

According to Ferm, 60% of the flowers sold in the U.S. are imported from Colombia, where the women workers earn poverty-level wages, work long hours, and suffer significant health problems due to pesticides.

The ILRF claims that two-thirds of the region's floricultural laborers suffer job-related health problems. The International Labor Organization reports that more than 70% of the flower-workers in Ecuador and Colombia are women. In Ecuador, 20% of the workers are young girls. These workers are particularly at risk in the days leading up to St. Valentine's Day, when they can be forced to work 20-hour shifts, cutting 300 stems per hour.

Poisoned Workers Demand Justice In December 2003, hundreds of Colombian workers were poisoned when a single container of chemicals spilled on the ground at a flower factory. The Association of Flower Exporters reported that only "a few" workers were hospitalized but a Pesticide Action Network investigation of hospital records revealed that 384 workers had been treated for symptoms including "fainting, strong headaches, nausea, swelling, rashes, diarrhea, and sores inside and around the mouth."

A Colombian Ministry of Health investigation discovered that nine different pesticides were being used in the flower factory including Dursban and Lorsban (both formulations of chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic organophosphate insecticide produced by Dow Agrosciences).

The ILRF has inaugurated a Fairness in Flowers Campaign that encourages shoppers to demand that retailers only deal with suppliers who respect worker rights. The campaign's main targets: Albertsons, Costco, Dole Food Company, FTD, Safeway, and Wal-Mart.

Shopping for an Alternative The neighborhood florist has long since taken a backseat to the mall and supermarket when it comes to the flower trade. Today florists account for around 22% of sales while supermarkets have captured 49% of the market. (Although there are fewer florists, they do manage to snag nearly half of the money Americans spend on flowers. The supermarkets claim slightly more that a quarter of all the bucks spent on blossoms and buds.)

While a large company like can fill more than a million orders on February 14, even small companies like Organic Bouquet, which sources its flowers from Ecuador, will fill 10,000 orders on V-Day. Americans spent nearly $26 per person on flowers in 2005, according to the Flower Council of Holland. But if money spent on flower-giving is any indication of true romance, the lover's cup goes to the Swiss, who hand over $101 per person on flowering tributes. (The US sits way back in 17th position.)

"The $6 billion American cut-flower industry has been slow to embrace the idea of an eco-label for cut flowers," Stewart notes. Meanwhile, "such programs have been popular in Europe for years."

Fortunately you can still play Cupid without being stupid. Don't panic: go organic. California Organic Flowers ships organic roses by the dozen. As do Akagourmet and Manic Organics. Diamond Organics specializes in organic tulips and California Organic Flowers proffers pesticide-free proteas. Organic Bouquet sells chemical-free flowers grown in Ecuador. You can also order fair trade flowers from Transfair USA and FairTrade. If you can't find a local supplier of organic Valentine's Day roses (or fair-trade chocolate), the Pesticide Action Network Web site will link you to a host of Special Offers. (A portion of each purchase goes to support PAN's work.)

The Local Harvest Web site will guide you to your nearest certified organic grower (for fruits and veggies as well as flowers) as well as local greenhouses and dried flower purveyors. Or you could surprise your loved ones with a gift membership in a Community Supported Agriculture cohort. One local CSA, Full Belly Farm will deliver flowers to your doorstep as part of the deal.

A Valentine for Flower Workers CorporaciAfA3n Cactus, a Colombian social justice organization, has called on shoppers to honor February 14th as International Flower-workers' Day. The Bogota-based organization cites the case of 43-year-old Daisy Perez, who started working at Arrayanes Flowers at the age of 19, "classifying thousands of flowers per hour." In 1995, Perez found herself working at a new company whose managers she describes as "crude, arrogant." A workplace accident left her body half-paralyzed and the company has denied her worker's disability claim.

CorporaciAfA3n Cactus is asking the world to pay tribute to Daisy and thousands of other workers who are "more important than thousands of flowers." On February 14, the workers simply ask that, when you buy an imported flower, you understand that you are "buying the sweat of many workers."

Valentine's Day is, at heart, all about caring for someone else. So extending those feelings of romantic butterflies and cuddly warmth to include thousands of unseen flower-workers half-a-world away is simply finding a way to celebrate this special occasion at a new, global level. So enjoy Valentine's Day by making sure your red roses are local/fair-trade and "green." Remember: when you buy organic and embrace your partner, you will also be embracing justice.

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