Growers say it with organic flowers

USA Today

By Elizabeth Weise

To many Americans, Mother's Day means three things: brunch, a card and flowers.

But few doting sons and daughters realize that producing those pretty posies is one of the most pesticide- and poison-intensive agricultural endeavors on the planet.

This Mother's Day, exactly half of all consumers say they'll buy flowers for Mom, according to a poll by the National Retail Federation. A small but growing number plan to give their love an organic flourish by sending flowers grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

U.S. sales of organic flowers were $8 million in 2003, an estimated 52% growth spurt over the previous year, the Organic Trade Association says.

Though that's a mere violet in the national greenhouse — the $19.5-billion-a-year U.S. floriculture market of all flower and plant sales — it has a fertile future. Sales of organic flowers are expected to blossom 13% a year through 2008.

Organic flowers don't look or smell any different from non-organic flowers. And there's no good evidence that they're any healthier for the lucky recipient.

But they are better for the environment, and especially for the tens of thousands of workers, most of them young women, who work in floral greenhouses in Central and South America, says Martha Olson Jarocki of the Pesticide Action Network. "Flowers are such a high-value crop that it takes a huge amount of pesticides to make them perfect," she says.

That includes dousing them with insecticides, fungicides and growth regulators, Jarocki says, and fumigation with toxic methyl bromide.

Few consumers cradling their colorful bouquets realize that close to 70% of cut flowers sold in the USA are grown overseas, where growing conditions are better, labor is cheaper and, Jarocki says, pesticide regulation is more lax.

"People always say, 'You don't eat flowers.' But you don't want the flowers you're giving your mom to be produced on the backs of some Ecuadorean floral worker," says Jeff Stephens of Scientific Certification Systems, a certifier of organic-flower producers in Emeryville, Calif.

Studies in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives have found symptoms of pesticide poisoning in workers in Colombia and Ecuador, which produce 59% and 19%, respectively, of the cut flowers imported into the USA.

In Colombia, floral workers reported headaches, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, skin eruptions and fainting. In Ecuador, nearly 60% of flower workers surveyed showed poisoning symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, trembling hands and blurred vision.

The organic-flower industry is still in the seedling stage, even though these blooms are all around, even in most backyards. But to grow them at a scale big enough to supply retailers is difficult, and there are fewer than 100 such producers worldwide, Stephens says.

One of the first to try was Gerald Prolman, who founded Organic in Mill Valley, Calif., five years ago.

Some flowers, like sunflowers, are easy to grow without chemicals. But the most popular flowers, such as roses, are "tough," Prolman says.

He worked four years to start up what he says is the world's only commercial production site for organic roses, in Rio Bomba, Ecuador.

In fact, of the most popular flowers for Mother's Day, two aren't available organically at all. The American Society of Florists says that after roses, Americans most often buy carnations, chrysanthemums, lilies and orchids for Mom. "Orchids are the hardest to grow organically. No one has really done it yet," Prolman says. "And no one's growing organic carnations."

But more flowers are coming into the organic fold every year, he says.

"We'll sell 10,000 organic bouquets in the next two days. We're really getting slammed," Prolman says from Miami, where he's helping out at one of Organic Bouquet's main shipment facilities. "We've been waiting for this moment for five years."