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A rose is [not] a rose

February 7, 2008

A rose is [not] a rose

Between the rows of tall, pale pink roses, he came at me like Darth Vader in a billowing cloud of vapors, his identity cloaked beneath a black face mask, hood and plastic clothes. But the material coming out of the worker’s hose was a fog of agricultural chemicals.

“Venenos,” explained my guide, César Estacio. Poisons. Once a laborer on a rose farm like this, Estacio is now director of a support organization for workers in Cayambe, Ecuador, a town rooted in agriculture, cattle ranching, and now roses.

The rose, once the most poetic and seductive of flowers, is now on the defensive, and the cloud of pesticides suggest why. Long the symbol of love, irresistible desire, and ephemeral beauty, the prickliest of flowers has never been so popular, so lucrative–or so toxic for the environment.

Every year, Americans buy about 1.5 billion roses, almost all of them from Latin America. The petals-and-pesticides story is retold every Valentine’s Day, and it came home forcefully to me in the fumigations and surrounding environmental toll.

The people who suffer the most are the rose workers and the environment where they work. As I found another telltale sign of the rose’s toxic toll in Ecuador – dead fish floating belly-up in pesticide-laced waters – I found myself wondering if I could ever buy a rose for my wife or mother again.

So I began a quest to learn if it’s possible to purchase an organic or sustainable rose. I discovered that enterprising growers and marketers in North and South America are working to turn the red rose “green.” I found you can buy roses that actually provide healthy habitats for both people and creatures. You just have to look for the right labels.

I went to Cayambe to learn firsthand about the effects on workers and the environment. Roses have been a boon to Ecuador’s economy, providing 45,000 jobs directly and perhaps as many indirectly. In Colombia flower production directly employs about 110,000 people.

Estacio knows the business from his years preparing rose beds. He left his job in 2000, he said, after new owners took over the farm and “began to drive it into the ground.” Now he’s director of the Fundación para el Desarrollo Social Sustentable, or FUNDESS (Foundation for Sustainable Social Development), where he’s heard the complaints of hundreds of sick workers.

“Everyone has headaches,” said soft-spoken Norma Mena. Now with FUNDESS, Mena formerly studied flower workers’ exposure to chemicals. Dermatitis and irritated eyes “are generalized,” she said. More ominous are respiratory and neurological symptoms that result from exposure to carcinogens. Women make up about half of the workforce and can have trouble getting pregnant or miscarry.

Estacio himself has had throat problems. “It’s upside down,” he said, frustrated. “The people have become the plants. They’re the ones getting sprayed.”

No one has studied the environmental effects of heavy pesticide use in Ecuador. In the United States, however, the Pesticide Action Network estimates that 1 in 10 birds die every year from toxics in the environment—about 67 million birds.

Yet I did discover a growing good news story in the flower business. There is a growing effort in Ecuador and the United States to develop and market nontoxic, sustainable flowers sold here.

I followed the stem of this budding green flower movement back to its source in California. Nearly 20 years ago Gerald Prolman, a developer and marketer of food products, started converting large tracts of land to organic crops. He began growing flowers in late 2000, but a rose, he discovered, is not a head of broccoli.

“Flowers turned out to be very complicated,” Prolman said. “They use anywhere from fifty to a thousand times the chemicals as vegetables.” One dot-size blemish on a leaf can ruin a flower for consumers

Prolman is not easily daunted in his mission to eliminate chemicals. He started in 2004, billing it as “the first online eco-florist.” He has since become the recognized leader in organic and sustainable flowers in the United States. Another supplier,, supplies eco-flowers for weddings or larger events.

Although the market for organic flowers is still nascent, the charismatic Prolman believes we’re poised for a revolution. The market has grown fast: $19 million in organic flowers were sold in the United States last year, according to the Organic Trade Association. Six years ago there were practically none available.

One key to this new market is the two kinds of labels, organic and sustainable. It can be easy to get them confused. Here’s the difference: Organic certification focuses on the environment, while sustainable includes both social and ecological standards.

VeriFlora, the largest “sustainable” label used in North America, certified 750 million stems this year, and incorporates three categories of criteria: environmental responsibility, social responsibility, and quality control. First certified in 2004, today there are eight growers in California, three in Colombia, and eight in Ecuador.

I didn’t find an appreciable price difference between green and conventional flowers. In fact, when I compared online prices, a dozen roses were cheaper on than at

To learn what a green flower means on the ground, I visited several certified farms. In Ecuador I went to one called LatinFlor, which received VeriFlora’s seal of approval.

On a sunny October morning, I met the manager, Fernando Duran, who is passionate about making the farm healthy for flowers and workers. He told me the farm uses a quarter of the pesticides it used 20 years ago.

In an effort to eliminate pesticides, Duran said, a researcher at LatinFlor found a natural biological control for a stubborn pest, the leaf miner. The scientist found the wasp is a natural enemy of the insect, attacking its larvae. He then developed a vacuum that is used to suck the dead insects off every plant.

“I’m happy to see organic is possible,” he said. “Our children and grandchildren will reap the harvest.”

This is a shortened version of English professor Charles Bergman’s cover story for Audubon magazine’s January/February 2008 issue.