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Guilt-Free Roses

How to avoid giving a nasty gift to your valentine.

Nadine Straka 14 Feb 2008TheTyee.ca

Nadine Straka, a graduate of UBC, is agroindustrial pesticide research co-ordinator at Centro de Estudias y Acessoria en Salud in Quito, Ecuador.

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Toxic oppressors?

Shopping for roses today? If you want to give a gift to the people who grow those beautiful buds, make sure they were harvested from one of 60 farms worldwide subscribing to the Flower Label Program. What's that? Think of it as an extra dollop of karma added to your loved one's present.

FLP ensures that flower plantations abide by standards that guarantee fundamental labour and environments rights. These include freedom of association and collective bargaining, equality of treatment, living wages, working hours, health and safety, appropriate use of pesticides and chemicals, security of employment, protection of the environment and protection against child and forced labour. Certified farms are "spot checked" once a year and certain tests are conducted to detect traces of prohibited pesticides. All workers receive mandatory educational programs about pesticide use, environmental and health hazards, farm contracts and worker rights.

The alternative is nothing pretty. Rose plantations often employ young workers with minimal education. Environmental and health standards are ignored and agrochemicals are utilized in abundance, drastically affecting the health of the workers and their families. Ironically, our symbol of Valentine's Day love inflicts suffering among the 200,000 workers worldwide in the cut-flower industry.

Engineered flowers

I recently visited a flower farm in the Granoble River Basin, about two hours north of Quito, Ecuador. It came as quite a shock to realize the true cost of the roses grown there. Soils are first drenched in nematocides to create a sterile environment, and then supplemented with fertilizers. Greenhouse workers are responsible for ensuring the perfect pest-free growth of the roses as they are continuously sprayed with pesticides. Following a harvest, the roses are hand-dipped in fungicides and trimmed and grouped into bouquets in an assembly-line fashion. Finally, the flowers are refrigerated, transported by truck to the nearest airport, and then to their destination country.

The Ecuadorian rose industry has experienced tremendous growth over the years. In 1991, cut-flower plantations occupied about 250 hectares; now, that number has passed 4,500, as much of the nation's land is transformed into monocultures of exportable crops. Making a profit means technological tweaking. Flower prototypes are genetically engineered to meet international expectations of the "perfect flower." Agrochemicals are used to up production. Sophisticated infrastructure is needed to ship flowers to their international destinations. These changes have led to the abandonment of traditional farming methods, radically affecting the lives of those living in nearby communities.

With very few regulations in place, cut-flower farms continue to use numerous pesticides, namely organophosphates and organochlorides, banned in North America and Europe. As flowers are an agricultural export, they must be pest-free upon arriving to their final destination; however, since they are not an edible crop, they are exempt from pesticide residue regulations and are not inspected.

Dangerous harvest

Chronic pesticide exposure in agricultural workers has been correlated with memory impairment, fatigue, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, difficulty breathing, tremors, and decreased motor skills, dexterity, strength and cognition. Pesticides have also been linked to reproductive and genetic defects, neurodegenerative diseases (mainly Parkinson's), seizures and cancer. As education regarding these health effects is lacking, workers often do not recognize that they are experiencing low-dose chronic pesticide exposure and rarely report these symptoms at work or seek medical help.

Most floral workers are young, with basic educational levels. With few options, workers are willing to compromise their health at a minimum wage without contracts, benefits, or training programs on flower plantations. In the past, when workers have co-ordinated to create unions, they have been struck down, bribed or fired. Sexual harassment is rampant and in many cases, women must provide proof of sterility or absence of pregnancy prior to employment at a flower farm, as reported by the International Labour Rights Forum.

Rose growing also often pollutes the local water. While small traditional farms use approximately 1,000 litres per hectare per month, flower farms on average use 1,000,000. Heavy metals from pesticides, such as chrome, manganese and zinc, seep into the waterways. Nitrogen and sulphur from chemical fertilizers find their way into the surrounding rivers. Most flower plantations lack adequate filtering systems, and nearby communities suffer the health dangers.

Overtime in the fields

While initiatives such as the Flower Label Program are popularizing the idea of responsible rose production, the demand for roses on Valentine's Day persists. During V-Day season, plantation workers are forced to work overtime with infrequent breaks. Pesticide regulations are neglected, and workers use the most neurotoxic and dangerous chemicals in order to meet V-Day quotas. Education about pesticide use is forgotten, and as workers are rushed and pressed for time, protective equipment during chemical application is often inadequate. If these violations exist in the 50 FLP certified farms, you can imagine what might go on in other 4,000 uncertified and unregulated hectares of plantations in Ecuador.

It can be argued that these farms are supplying impoverished communities with a source of income and independence as an increasing number of workers are employed each year. Conversely, these farms can also be seen as exploitative of traditional farming communities. "High-tech flower farms do not solve socio-economic problems, but rather take advantage of cheap community labour due to the ineffectiveness of the agrarian reform," says Jaime Breil, director of the Health Research and Advisory Centre (CEAS) in Quito and leader of an "ecohealth" project that investigates the social, health and environmental impacts of the floral industry in Ecuador.

Give us fair-trade labels

"Fair-trade" flowers are not yet easy to come by. But why not? We can sip our lattes guilt-free because we know where our coffee comes from. In Canada, our supermarkets are stocked with selections of coffee, each label containing information indicating the country of origin and whether the beans are fair trade, organic, shade grown, etc. This labelling technique has been successful in increasing consumer awareness.

We need to create similar demand for "fair trade" flowers. We need to pressure the floriculture industry and governments to enforce regulations and create transparency in legal, environmental and health issues. Maybe a label is a good place to start.

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