BEIJING, Feb. 13 (Xinhuanet) -- When you consider the
amount of toxic chemicals that may be on the roses you give your sweetheart,
it's probably a good thing Valentine's Day comes only once a year.
And if roses may be unsafe for your sweetheart, what
about the 110,000 employees -- many of them single mothers -- that work in the
savannah surrounding Bogata, the capital of Columbia?
The world's second largest cut-flower producer after the Netherlands, the
region produces 62 percent of all flowers sold in the United States with annual
exports valued at 1 billion U.S. dollars.
The industry provides an important alternative to
growing coca, source crop of cocaine, Columbia's better known illegal
export. But these economic gains come at a cost to workers' health and
Colombia's environment, according to consumer advocates.
The U.S. requires imported flowers to be bug-free,
but unlike edible fruits and vegetables they are not tested for chemical
The tropical climate that drew U.S. flower growers to
Colombia and neighboring Ecuador is a haven for pests. So growers facing stiff
competition from emerging flower industries in Africa and China apply pesticides
and fungicides, some of which have been linked to elevated rates of cancer and
neurological disorders and other problems.
Colombia's flower exporters association responded by
launching Florverde, which has certified 86 of its 200 members for taking steps
to improve worker safety and welfare. Florverde says its members have reduced
pesticide use by 38 percent since 1998, to an average of 213 pounds of active
ingredient per 2.4 acres per year.
"Every day we're making more progress," said
Florverde director Juan Carlos Isaza. "The value of Florverde is that these best
practices have now been standardized and are being adopted by the industry."
Nevertheless, 36 percent of the toxic chemicals
applied by Florverde farms in 2005 were listed as extremely or highly toxic by
the World Health Organization, Isaza acknowledged.
A survey of 84 farms between 2000 and 2002, partly
financed by Asocolflores, the exporters' association, found only 16.7 percent
respected pesticide manufacturer recommendations to prevent workers for 24 hours
from re-entering greenhouses sprayed with the most toxic of pesticides.
Carmen Orjuela began suffering dizzy spells and
repeated falls in 1997, while working at a flower farm outside Bogota. During
the peak season before Valentine's Day, she said her employer forced workers to
enter greenhouses only a half-hour after they had been fumigated.
"Those who refused were told they could leave -- that
20 people were outside waiting to take their job," said Orjuela, who quit in
Orjuela's employer, Flores de la Sabana, denied ever
disregarding manufacturer-recommended re-entry times, but a 2005 toxicology
study from Colombia's National University obtained by The Associated Press
confirmed that Orjuela's illness was "directly related to an important exposure
to potentially toxic chemical substances." A government arbiter finally ordered
the company to pay her a pension equal to the 200 dollars monthly minimum wage
earned by most workers.
Government oversight is relatively strict in the
United States -- in California, each flower farm's pesticide use is available
for review on the Internet. But there are no reliable statistics about chemicals
used by Colombia's 600-plus flower farms, in part because only a third belong to
Asocolflores, which does keep good records.
Although the industry has made huge strides thanks to
Florverde, accidents continue to happen.
On Nov. 25, 2003, some 200 workers at Flores
Aposentos, outside Bogota, were hospitalized after fainting and developing sores
inside their mouths. Authorities determined this mass poisoning could have been
caused by any number of pesticide-handling violations, but fined the company
just 5,770 dollars.
Causal links between chemicals and individual
illnesses are hard to prove because chronic pesticide exposure has not been
studied in enough detail. But the Harvard School of Public Health examined 72
children ages 7-8 in a flower-growing region of Ecuador whose mothers were
exposed to pesticides during pregnancy and found they had developmental delays
of up to four years on aptitude tests.
"Every time we look, we're finding out these
pesticides are more dangerous than we ever thought before and more toxic at
lower levels," said Philippe Grandjean, who led the Harvard study published last
Producers say they would love to go organic,
especially given the high costs of pesticides. But their risks include
infestations and stiff competition from emerging flower growers in Africa and
"The biggest hurdle to going organic is that once
you're there you have to be prepared to lose your crop," said John Amaya,
president of the Miami-based flower unit of Dole Food Co., Colombia's largest
Still, U.S. consumers bought 16 million dollars in
organic flowers in 2005, and demand is growing by 50 percent a year, according
to the Organic Trade Association.
That growth has been helped by VeriFlora, a
certification and labeling program launched by U.S. consumers, growers and
retailers including Whole Foods Market Inc. Some 32 farms in Colombia and
Ecuador have earned the VeriFlora label, which requires a transition to organic
production and unlike Florverde bans more than 100 chemicals outright.
"Unfortunately, existing programs have deficiencies
that would not fly in the American marketplace," said Linda Brown, vice
president of Scientific Certification Systems, which runs the VeriFlora program.
Gerald Prolman, CEO of San Francisco-based Organic
Bouquet.com, counts on VeriFlora-certified growers for much of his supply.
"If producers want to distinguish their flowers from
the glut of cheap, chemically produced ones in the world right now they need to
ensure that their farms have fully incorporated socially and environmentally
responsible practices that consumers demand and are willing to pay more for," he