A Rose is Not a Rose

Pablo Corral Vega
Pablo Corral Vega
Pablo Corral Vega
Pablo Corral Vega
Pablo Corral Vega

A Rose is Not a Rose

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. But enterprising growers and marketers are working to turn the red rose green.

By Charles Bergman/ Photography by Pablo Corral Vega
Published: January-February 2008

Between 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, Cesar Estacio. Poisons. Once a laborer on a rose farm like this, Estacio is now director of a support organization for workers in Cayambe, 50 miles north of Quito, Ecuador, a town rooted in agriculture, cattle ranching, and now roses.

The worker's ominous outfit might have given the impression that safety measures were being taken here to shield both the man behind the sprayer and the people laboring in the greenhouse. But the action was likely inadequate. None of the other workers were wearing protective gear. And when I followed one of the farm's canals carrying irrigation runoff to a catch-water lagoon, I found another telltale sign of the rose's toxic toll here in Ecuador: dead fish floating belly-up in pesticide-laced waters. "The chemicals wind up in the rivers," Estacio said. "By the time the rivers pass through the farms, they're all polluted."

The rose, once the most poetic and seductive of flowers, is now on the defensive, and the cloud of pesticides and the dead fish suggest why. Long the symbol of love, irresistible desire, and ephemeral beauty, the iconic flower has never been so popular, so lucrative--and so vilified. An ideal combination of temperate climate, equatorial sun, and volcanic soils has lifted the Ecuadoran rose to an unprecedented approximation of perfection. Intense colors and huge, swirling flower heads the size of baseballs explain why many think Ecuador grows the world's best roses. But this perfect flower has stumbled into the 21st century under a disturbing burden of pesticides, poisoned workers, and polluted waters and wildlife.

Every year Americans buy about 1.5 billion roses, almost all of them from Latin America--about 900 million from Colombia and 400 million from Ecuador. Flowers have become the third pillar of Ecuador's economy, behind only oil and bananas. More than 90 percent of Ecuador's blooms are exported, primarily to the United States, and mostly for two holidays--Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Yet virtually every rose is really an industrial product treated with pesticides and fungicides by a commercial farm before making its way to your sweetheart or mother.

The petals-and-pesticides story is retold every Valentine's Day, and it came home forcefully to me in the fumigations and dead fish. No studies have yet shown off-gassing from flowers alone to be harmful to consumers. But in tightly sealed spaces, such as a well-insulated home, there could be a minimal combined effect on indoor air quality and human health from products--flowers, carpets, paints--that have been treated with toxic chemicals. The people who suffer the most as a result of our rose buying habits are the rose workers and the environment in the places where they work. As I looked at the dead fish in the pond in Ecuador, 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 as an alternative to those grown with chemicals, poisons, and pollution. I found that you can buy roses that actually provide healthy habitats for both people and creatures. You just have to look for the right labels.

 

I had gone to Cayambe, a flower town and thriving business center in the Andes that straddles latitude zero, to learn firsthand about the effects on workers and the environment. Roses have been a boon to Ecuador's economy. Since the first five acres were planted here in 1983, the flower industry has grown nationwide into 400 farms, providing about 45,000 jobs directly and perhaps as many jobs for truck drivers and other workers. In Colombia flower production directly employs about 110,000 people.

Estacio knows the business from his years of experience in Ecuador preparing rose beds. With chubby cheeks and mischievous eyes, his boyish looks belie his years in the field. 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 Fundacion para el Desarrollo Social Sustentable, or FUNDESS (Foundation for Sustainable Social Development), where he's heard the complaints of hundreds of sick workers.

I asked him if there are statistics on pesticide use on flower farms. "It's hard to know," he said. "But it must be a lot. The owners continue the policy of producing flowers at the expense of workers and nature."

I was surprised at how little clear information--statistics and studies--is available about the environmental impacts of flowers in Latin America, especially the amount of pesticides used in Ecuador. Growers are supposed to register their chemicals, but the records are elusive. Plus, the market in contraband is said to be huge. Ecuador uses a color-coded ranking system for agrochemicals. Red labels indicate the most toxic, and are illegal. Yet it's widely believed that they slip into the country through Colombia.

As Estacio said, "Everything is for sale."

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