Buying organic flowers protects your family, workers, and the environment, and they're easier to find than ever.
Tara Beeman sprays an oil-based mixture of raw garlic and cayenne pepper on her annuals and perennials to fend off chewing insects. Jorge Chiriboga releases wasps and ladybugs into his greenhouses to combat aphids. Patricia Damery feeds lavender clippings to her goats, returning the manure to the field as fertilizer to keep her lavender crop healthy and thriving.
Drawing on tried and tested techniques for growing plants without chemicals, Beeman, Chiriboga, and Damery each produce beautiful, fragrant, organic flowers. Beeman sells her flowers in her own shop, while Chiriboga exports roses from his native Ecuador to the US, and California-based Damery partners with nearby retailers and farmers’ markets to sell her lavender. Together they represent a growing force that is changing the floral marketplace for the better.
While many consumers embrace organic products for the superior taste and health benefits provided by organic fruits and vegetables, organic farming itself originated as a strategy for preserving soil quality and keeping harmful toxins out of the environment.
“Any kind of organic farming protects the health of people and the health of the environment,” says Damery. “[Organic] doesn’t just have to be about food.”
With Mother’s Day and the June wedding season just around the corner, you can make your celebrations more meaningful by buying organic flowers that protect workers, your family, and the environment.
The Cost of Conventional Flowers
Flowers grown with conventional techniques contribute to the contamination of ground-water and streams through fertilizer and pesticide run-off, which can in turn impact wildlife and human health, as was documented in a 2003 San Francisco Chronicle investigation of contaminated wells and waterways near a California lily farm.
The paper reported many highly toxic chemicals in use among the region’s lily growers, including known carcinogens, and noted that the EPA is now looking into the possibility that endangered species may be threatened by the farms’ run-off.
Just as worrisome as potential soil and water contamination from conventional flower farms is the array of chemicals to which flower workers are exposed while on the job. More than 70 percent of the cut flowers sold in the US were grown in South America, mostly in Colombia, where farms continue to use pesticides restricted in the US and labeled as highly toxic by the World Health Organization, according to a 2003 article in the New York Times and a 2011 report in Smithsonian Magazine.
For Valentine’s Day alone, Americans imported more than 120 million roses, most of them from South American farms where normal procedures call for fumigating greenhouses with a range of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides (sometimes with workers still inside) before submerging the flowers in preservatives to keep them from rotting during shipment. Such practices are taking their toll on the workers who must handle these toxic chemicals daily.
For example, in November 2003, according to Untraflores, the Colombian floral workers’ union, more than 300 workers were poisoned in a chemical accident at Flores Aposentos, a flower processing center in Bogota. Affected workers experienced headaches, nausea, swelling, rashes, diarrhea, sores inside the mouth, and loss of consciousness, and some were incapacitated for days.
A 2002 survey of 8,000 Colombian flower workers discovered exposure to 25 carcinogenic or highly toxic pesticides not registered for use in the United States, and the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) reports that two-thirds of Colombian and Ecuadorian flower workers suffer work-related health problems ranging from stillbirths and miscarriages to impaired vision and neurological problems.
Furthermore, the International Labor Organization estimates that 20 percent of Ecuadorian flower workers are children, who are even more vulnerable to the harmful effects of these chemicals.
In addition to harming workers and the environment in the fields and greenhouses, the chemicals on conventionally grown flowers may impact consumer health, says Holly Givens, communications director for the Organic Trade Association. “If you’re really concerned about pesticides in your home, you should know that the way a decorative flower is grown can affect what you might be breathing in,” she says.
After investigating ten possible cases of pesticide poisoning among Miami florists in 1979, the American Journal of Public Health recommended implementation of safety standards for residual pesticides on cut flowers to protect both florists and consumers, but no such standards have ever been developed for the United States.
Making the Switch to Organic Flowers
There are many steps you can take to ensure that you beautify your home and celebrate holidays and special events with flowers grown in accordance with your values:
1. Grow Your Own. Buy organic bulbs or seeds and start an organic flower garden. Seeds of Change offers organic and heirloom seeds and bulbs that you can order online to help you get started. Clip your own blooms for displaying at home or for giving as gifts. Give clippings from your houseplants when you don’t have flowers.
2. Buy Local and Organic. Invest in your community, and save shipping costs and energy, by purchasing chemical-free organic flowers from a local farmers’ market or CSA.
3. Ask Local Florists to go Organic. Find out if your local florist purchases any organic and local flowers, and, if not, request them. Talk to other flower sellers, such as supermarkets, about the benefits of organics. Give them this article to help them get started.
“Consumers should express their preference for organic flowers by writing to conventional flower retailers,” says Nora Ferm, program officer for the ILRF. “Demonstrating that there is a market for [organically grown] flowers will encourage more producers, importers, and retailers to improve conditions [for workers].”
4. Buy Organic. Online retailers Organic Bouquet and Diamond Organics offer USDA-certified organic flowers that you can ship to loved ones all over the country. While Diamond Organics buys its flowers only from American family farmers, Organic Bouquet sells a mix of both domestic blooms and imports from farms that adhere
to certified organic standards.
In addition, Organic Bouquet founder Gerald Prolman personally has visited each of his source farms to ensure acceptable working conditions.
“Organic flowers have a deeper layer of beauty that comes from the comfort of knowing that the people who grow them and the land they grow them on are treated with respect,” says Prolman. “Organic floral production is part of one movement toward a better world.”