A Rose is Not a Rose

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

Before visiting Cayambe, I had asked an expert in Andean agriculture about the witch's brew of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used in the flower industry. Like me, Gregory Knapp, a professor and former chair of the department of geography and the environment at the University of Texas, Austin, was a Fulbright Scholar in Ecuador, where he was studying irrigation. "It's a crisis of chemicals," he said. "Nobody really knows the quantity of pesticides. Almost all are imported, but a large amount, perhaps even the majority, is brought in under the radar. The key environmental problems with farming here have to do with the intense use of pesticides."

A 2007 study by the International Labor Rights Fund and the  U.S./Labor Education in the Americas Project (LEAP) found that Ecuadoran flower companies use 30 different pesticides, and that 20 percent of the chemicals applied in flower production in Colombia are restricted or banned in the United States and Europe.

Estacio wanted to show me where, he said, growers sometimes heave barrels of used chemicals directly into the river, the simplest way to get rid of these hazards. We drove to a bridge that rattled with every truck that crossed. In the churning waters below, we found no pesticide barrels. Instead, near the bridge and right next to the road, we discovered a huge pile of plastic. Someone had dumped the remains of an entire greenhouse about 50 feet from the river.

"The chemicals from the fumigations are in the plastic," said Estacio. "They seep into the ground and then in the river."

"Health is the key reason for the concerns," said Katherine DiMatteo, former executive director of the Organic Trade Association, a North American group. "But not only personal [consumer] health--also farmworker health and the environment." Decades after Silent Spring exposed the dangers of DDT, scientists at the Pesticide Action Network of North America reported that pesticides are "known to kill aquatic animals and plants, impair reproduction, and reduce food sources for fish," and that "one-tenth of birds in North America die every year from exposure to pesticides." That's about 67 million birds. Meanwhile, one 2002 study from the Canadian-based International Development Research Centre found that about two-thirds of Ecuadoran flower workers show signs of exposure to toxins.

"Everyone has headaches," said Norma Mena, in her soft-spoken manner. Now with FUNDESS, Mena formerly worked for 10 years as an economist at the Instituto de Ecologia y Desarrollo de las Comunidades Andinas, studying flower workers' exposure to chemicals. Dermatitis and irritated eyes, including cataracts, "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 some, according to Mena, have trouble getting pregnant, or miscarry if they do conceive.

In the FUNDESS offices in Cayambe, Estacio introduced me to an indigenous woman with a round face and shy eyes who had worked for 16 years preparing soils for rose beds. Maria Imbaquingo, who met me after her shift, was bundled up against the cool mountain night in a gray jacket and a stocking cap with the New York Yankees logo on it. She said they used "red-label"--or highly toxic--chemicals "siempre"--always.

"I developed spinal problems, bad circulation, pain," she continued. Then she rolled up her pants to show me her legs. "I have red rashes and open wounds that won't go away." Estacio took her to see doctors in Quito, but he doesn't know if they could diagnose her symptoms.

"It could be chemicals," Imbaquingo said. "They told me not to go back to work." But she explained that's not an option for her, with children to support on $160 per month.

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."


As ominous as the workers' health problems seemed, I did discover reason for hope while in Ecuador in a growing effort to develop and market nontoxic, sustainable flowers to the United States. 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 land, including 20,000 acres of California agriculture, 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 told me. "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. Fruits and vegetables, however, are not as defined by cosmetics. Using organic practices that guarantee there are no visual defects, for thousands of flower types, is difficult.

"A total organic zealot," by his own description, Prolman is not easily daunted in his mission to eliminate chemicals. He started OrganicBouquet.com in 2004, billing it as "the first online eco-florist." Since then he has become the recognized leader in organic and sustainable flowers in the United States. Peter Roy, the former president of Whole Foods Market, told me that Prolman "pioneered the entire organic fresh flower business, and it would not have developed as it has without his efforts and perseverance."

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