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The Cannibal Killers Behind the Perfect Rose

They're a mitey problem. Third in an investigative series funded by Tyee readers.

By Gabriela Perdomo 18 May 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Gabriela Perdomo is a journalist based in Vancouver. She wrote this, and more stories to come, as a recipient of a reader-funded Tyee Solutions Reporting Fellowship to trace the environmental and human rights footprint of imported flowers in B.C.

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Most certification labels address occupational health issues. Here, a worker at the Fairtrade certified Hoja Verde farm carries flowers that others just harvested. Photo: Darryl Korell.

[Editor's Note: Canadians love a fresh bouquet, and not only in springtime. Here in B.C., flower purchases are up by a fifth in the last four years, and most of those blooms come from far, far away. The majority of fresh flowers sold here are imported, often from developing countries where nursery conditions have attracted criticism for being hard on the environment and exploitive of workers. So-called "fair-trade" certifications, modelled on programs that certify everything from indulgences like coffee and chocolate to raw materials like lumber, now claim to assure customers that certain bouquets can be good for the conscience as well as the morale. But do such labels really represent better practices where our flowers are grown? Supported by Tyee readers through a Tyee Fellowship, reporter Gabriela Perdomo has been checking out the high valleys of South America's Andes that produce more than half our imported flowers. Here is her fourth dispatch. (Read earlier reports here.)]

Spider mites are a rose's Public Enemy Number One. Barely as big as a sesame seed, they gather under the bush's leaves, sucking nourishment, and life, out its moist cells. The tiny predators reproduce quickly and can kill a rose plant in a matter of days. Within a month, a single mature female spider mite can populate a greenhouse with a million offspring. Still, Angela Ramirez refers to them as "those individuals." A biologist, Ramirez is in charge of breeding "good mites" -- tiny cannibals that feed off their vegetarian cousins.

Ramirez's "good" mites are grain-sized foot soldiers in an effort to reduce the use of pesticides at Elite Flower, one of the largest flower growers in Colombia. The project is part of a company-wide program to use fewer agrochemicals, including herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Elite is among several South American farms recently certified by the Rainforest Alliance for their sustainable agricultural practices. Rainforest, along with the competing Fairtrade label, is one of the seals of approval for good social or environmental practices you're most likely to see on flowers purchased in B.C. Now I'd come to Colombia's prize flower-growing region to see what those labels represent on the ground.

Spider mites used to be a problem only during the dry season in the Bogota Savanna -- where Elite and 85 per cent of the country's other greenhouses are located. "With climate change," however, "spider mites are now a year-long problem," Ramirez told me. This means the use of pesticides targeting spider mites has inevitably gone up in greenhouses all over the region. The products are very expensive and highly toxic, good reasons for many flower growers to consider alternatives.

A mitey battle

In her laboratory greenhouse, Ramirez cultivates melon pear, a bushy variety of pepper plant that produces a melon-like fruit, favoured by "bad" spider mites Tetranychus urticae. In short order, sap-sucking spider mites colonize the melon pear plants. Once their numbers are sizable, Ramirez unleashes a second wave of mites. These are her "good" mites, Amblyseius californicus, a carnivorous variety that's especially fond of feasting on members of the Tetranychus branch of the family. Provided with plenty to eat, the "good" mites reproduce readily until Ramirez has enough to release into greenhouses where roses are grown. The battle of "good" over "evil" mites can restore even damaged rose bushes to mite-free vigour.

Ramirez led me into the test greenhouse, where rose bushes of a dozen varieties and colours stood taller than both of us. I noticed there was no smell of chemicals whatsoever. "We haven't sprayed a single chemical here this whole year," Ramirez said. The plan is to build up the numbers of her nearly invisible troops until all Elite's greenhouses are pesticide free.

Floral harm reduction

Acquiring its Rainforest certification has propelled Elite's efforts to green its growing practices in more ways than one. Aside from the mite project, the company has implemented an elaborate water treatment and recycling system. Contaminated water is cleaned and sent to a reservoir, topped-up by collecting rainfall. Each farm composts every flower rejected for export into fertilizer. At a company lab, biologists, agronomists, and scientists produce biological herbicides and fertilizers.

Estela Cordon, manager of two of Elite's 14 farms, says: "This is a culture of harm reduction. We're trying to be healthier and less toxic for our workers and the environment." She adds, jokingly, "Elite now buys more groceries than chemicals!" The groceries she has in mind aren't for the employees. The company buys wheat, sugar, and rice to breed fungi at the lab that are later used as replacements for fertilizers and other agrochemicals.

"Managing these biological products has meant that at this farm we don't spray (agrochemicals) eight hours a day," says Cordon. "Now we spray biological products for two hours, and chemicals for three or four hours, max." In the near future, she says, Elite hopes to replace agrochemicals with biological products completely in all its greenhouses.

Toxic flowers

Growing flowers on massive scale is inherently unnatural. Floral monocultures attract more pests like spider mites in bulk than a variety of crops grown in the same parcel. Hence you also need more and stronger pesticides to control them. As a result, workers in flower farms are exposed to a wide array of agrochemicals, including pesticides, herbicides and harsh chemical fertilizers. The norm in any conventional farm is to spray chemicals on the flowers and soil for eight hours a day. This is usually one person's job.

Past campaigns for the ban of certain pesticides focused on risks to the consumer. Fewer groups, Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade International among them, have looked into risks for the workers who handle the chemicals.

Europe and North America prohibited organochlorine pesticides such as DDT in the 1970s. Global agriculture then shifted towards organophosphates, related chemicals that don't remain active as long on products. By the time a flower or a banana is transported from, say, South America into North America, the pesticide residue has decayed and the consumer is no longer at risk of exposure.

The problem with organophosphates, however, is that they are 'acutely toxic' instead of 'chronically toxic' as the organochlorines were. What that means is that while DDT did its damage over time, the new generation of pesticides can injure in short-term excessive doses. So, while consumers are not at risk, workers in the fields where those flowers or bananas are grown may be exposed to high levels of toxicity.

Safer greenhouses

Paula Barrios is a PhD in international law and expert in hazardous chemicals. At her Vancouver office, she told me that workers exposed to acutely toxic organophosphates have reported "respiratory problems, nails falling off, and strong headaches." Daily exposure can also have neurological effects similar to those caused by Alzheimer's disease.

Greenhouses are closed, plastic-covered environments. Spraying flowers with chemicals is usually a one-man job, every day, six days a week. At most farms, greenhouses are opened for other workers just a few hours after being sprayed. Employees work either in the greenhouse or the packaging room. It's easy for chemical substances to linger in either space.

The Fairtrade and Rainforest certificates both focus heavily on training workers and companies in the proper use of toxic chemicals. I watched a group of men putting on bright yellow uniforms, rubber boots, gloves, and inhalation masks, as they prepared to spray a greenhouse at Hoja Verde. At this Fairtrade certified farm in Cayambe, Ecuador, women are banned from spraying agrochemicals. Male workers spray only for up to four hours a day. After spraying, workers put up a "danger" sign at the greenhouse door, indicating it's closed for at least 24 hours.

Workers also must regularly attend tutorials to keep up with safety protocols. The company must follow guidelines for the disposal of contaminated materials such as the plastic barrels where the chemicals are stored. Rainforest-certified Elite Flower in Colombia follows similar protocols. There, men spray for eight hours a day but rotate jobs so they only do it for three months a year. It was also the only farm I visited in South America with shower facilities where spray workers could clean up and avoid contaminating their homes with toxic substances.

Business is blooming

Thousands of greenhouses mark the geography of Colombia's and Ecuador's Andean valleys. The flower business there has come a long way since its early shoots in the 1970s and 1980s. Both countries' economies now rely heavily on floriculture. Over 225,000 direct and indirect jobs depend on the industry in Colombia; more than 100,000 in Ecuador. Floriculture is a rare source of formal employment in rural areas in both countries, where most agricultural jobs are informal. It would be unfair to say flower growers haven't learned from the industry's past mistakes. Today's industry is noticeably more responsible than it was, both socially and environmentally.

Even so, many growers view international labeling organizations like Rainforest or Fair Trade International with apprehension, fearing unfair scrutiny. Those I spoke to at certified farms, by contrast, have welcomed the oversight. Estela Cordon, at Colombia's Elite, hopes other South American growers find the "patience and dedication" to embrace higher social and environmental standards. The industry "needs a change of mentality," she says. "We are an example that this is possible."  [Tyee]

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