Where Did Your Roses Grow?


By Elena Day

With the exception of the roses, this winter wedding centerpiece was made of locally foraged materials.
With the exception of the roses, this winter wedding centerpiece was made of locally foraged materials.

I am preoccupied with current Dominion Virginia Power’s push to change Virginia’s utility laws so it can recoup the $530 million it has invested to date, as well as all future costs, to license and build nuclear unit North Anna 3 in Louisa County by increasing our monthly  electric bills. Since Dominion rules the Old Dominion via political cronyism and its status as largest contributor to political campaigns on both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly, the success of their quest is almost guaranteed.

February brings us Valentine’s Day and “love by flower bouquets.” There’s money in those flowers, just as there is money out there for our utility company and in the case of Keystone, the oil industry.

Cut flower production originated and became established in the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first greenhouses for flower production in the United States followed European settlement. These were small producers of mostly roses, mums and carnations near cities and larger towns. With the development of refrigerated trucks and air transport, carnation and rose cultivation moved to the Colorado mountains and then to coastal California. Chrysanthemums and gladioli were grown in Florida and California. Field production decreased and greenhouses proliferated.

In the mid 1960s producers found that the savannah around Bogota, Colombia, is optimal for flower cultivation. It has high light (12 hours a day year round), moderate temperatures  and low productions costs; i.e., campesinos displaced by ongoing political violence and then in the 80s, the drug war, who were willing to work for very low wages. In 1969 David Cheever, after having graduated from Colorado State University, and three partners, each investing $25,000, began growing carnations near Bogota. They employed state of the art assembly line practices and modern shipping techniques and air transport. Within five years there were 10 more flower producing enterprises cultivating roses and mums as well as carnations.

Colombia is currently the second largest exporter of flowers worldwide. The Netherlands remains first, although a percentage of Dutch flowers are first imported from Kenya, Israel, Zimbabwe, Ecuador and Uganda. Seventy percent of Colombia’s cut flowers are grown for U.S. markets. Ecuador’s high altitude farms account for another 23 percent. Ecuador’s roses are considered exceptional. Roses produced at 17 cents/rose in Ecuador may sell for as much as $8 each in the U.S.

In 1971 the U.S. produced 1.2 billion rose, carnation and chrysanthemum blooms and imported 100 million blooms. By 2003, the U.S. was importing 2 billion blooms and grew only 280 million. California accounts for 75 percent of current domestic production. These are largely specialty cut flowers such as lilies. $13 billion retail worth of flowers are sold annually in the U.S.

In 1991 the U.S. suspended import duties on Colombian flowers. This was disastrous for U.S. growers. Of course the U.S. Colombia Free Trade Agreement signed in 2006 made things worse.  Today 90 percent of cut flowers from South America pass through Miami  International Airport (MIA) where they are inspected for insects but not for chemical pesticide residues. MIA’s top flower importer, Queens Flowers Corporation, receives five tractor trailer loads of packaged blooms from Colombia on a typical day. Now that it is February, imports have swelled, as they will again in May for Mother’s Day. It takes 48 hours for flowers to travel from a field in Colombia to a U.S.  warehouse, from where they are transferred to Krogers, Walmart, Costco or a local florist. Flowers are maintained at 34 degrees F throughout.

The South American flower industry has been showcased as a means of alleviating rural poverty and as an alternative to coca production. However the reality is quite different.  Workers are exposed to 100 different kinds of pesticides because regardless of positive aspects for growing in the savannah around Bogota, equatorial pests are pervasive. Many of these pesticides are dithiocarbamates, which are implicated in high rates of miscarriage and birth defects. All cut flowers are dipped in a foamy fungicide solution before packaging as well.

Floriculture in the savannah draws on large quantities of groundwater. Rainfall around Bogota is on average 33 inches per year. Flower planters have drilled over 5,000 wells. Springs, streams, and wetlands are disappearing. Three gallons of water are used to grow one rose bloom. Furthermore, pesticides and fungicide runoff contaminate surface waters.

Sixty-five percent of flower workers are women; most are single mothers. Many companies insist that women take a pregnancy test or provide proof of sterilization when hired so employers won’t have to provide maternity leave. Twenty percent of workers are children in Ecuador. Most child labor has been eliminated in Colombia.

Workers typically work 12-hour days. Before Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, shifts are increased to 16 to 20 hours per day.

Workers have been thwarted in efforts to organize or join unions to demand better working conditions. (Unionists have been regularly killed and/or disappeared in Colombia for decades.) Wages on average are $8 day, not nearly enough to cover the cost of a family’s basic requirements.

Floraverde, a trade association, motivated to sell more flowers from Colombia/“land of flowers” has begun certifying growers as to taking steps to improve worker safety and welfare and decreasing pesticide use. Since 1998 pesticide use has decreased 38 percent to an average of 213 pounds of active ingredients per 2.4 acres per year. In 2005, 36 percent of the toxic chemicals used in Floraverde-certified farms were listed as extremely toxic or highly toxic by the World Health Organization (WHO). A survey of 84 farms found that only 16.7  percent respected manufacturers’ recommendations to keep workers out of greenhouses for 24 hours after spraying the most toxic products. Workers generally re-enter sprayed greenhouses after an arbitrary odor sniff.

Chemical pesticide residues pose little risk to flower buyers. Perhaps there is less incentive to push for changes to floriculture in South America (and Mexico) than there is regarding  imported foodstuffs in the U.S. And then, one may think of jobs that floriculture provides. But there is the issue of groundwater depletion and surface water contamination. What’s a world citizen to do!

Apparently some consumers are demanding organically grown flowers or at least less heavily pesticided blooms. The “buy local” movement is encouraging small enterprises and thereby, in some localities, the rural economy. Most hopeful is that some folks are more willing to buy seasonal floral arrangements. These are not simply twigs in winter. Floral arrangements may include vines and evergreens, ornamental kale, mosses, hellebores or Lenten roses, seed pods, and shelf mushrooms.

In February 2008 I provided centerpieces for a local wedding (see photograph above). All materials had been foraged except for the pink roses (origin thereof was likely Colombia). Makes me feel as if I was ahead of the curve.

Action Alert: It has been documented that neurotoxic pesticides known as neonicotinoids have been linked to mass honeybee die-offs. The European Union has banned their use.  In the U.S., “neonics,” manufactured by Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, are available at  garden centers and are routinely sprayed on plants folks buy for their home gardens.  Friends of the Earth, Organic Consumers’ Association and other groups are joining together to ask CEOs of Home Depot and Lowe’s to end the sale of neonics in their stores during Valentine’s week (2/10-2/16.)  To “show bees some love” check this website: www.organicconsumers.org/ocaactions.cfm?actionnum=12957