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.

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, César 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 Fundación 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.”

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 Ecología 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. María 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.”

Although the market for organic flowers is still nascent, the charismatic Prolman believes we’re poised for a revolution in the way people buy flowers. The market has grown fast: $19 million of organic flowers were sold in the United States last year, according to the Organic Trade Association. Six years ago there were practically no eco-flowers available. Prolman hopes to sell about $100 million worth of flowers during the next five years. Compared with the overall floriculture industry, which had an estimated retail value of $8 billion in 2006, organic flowers currently make up just a quarter of a percent. “But that’s all about to change,” said Prolman.

For a long time the only place to buy sustainable stems was at a farmers’ market. Now, in addition to local sources, Whole Foods and New Seasons Market, a small chain, are selling them occasionally in season. You can also find them online, and Prolman’s OrganicBouquet.com is one of a few sites. 

One key to this new market in flowers is the certification programs. Because the movement is still developing, you will find two different kinds of labels—organic and sustainable—and it’s easy to get them confused. Here’s the difference: Organic certification focuses on the environment, while sustainable includes both social and ecological standards. Organic, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, requires farming practices that build rich, fertile soils and use natural means to combat pests. No synthetic chemical pesticides are allowed.

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. “Environmental responsibility” allows for the limited use of synthetic pesticides—a less rigorous standard than organic—but also includes rules about packaging, greenhouse gases, and habitat mitigation. “Social responsibility” means, for example, that  workers must receive a decent salary, training, and medical care. No child labor is allowed. “Quality control” refers to procedures like keeping the flowers cold from farm to florist for freshness.

The first VeriFlora farm was certified in 2004; today there are eight growers in California, three in Colombia, and eight in Ecuador, with more on the way. Organic and VeriFlora certifications are not mutually exclusive. For example, all the roses for sale on OrganicBouquet.com are from VeriFlora or certified-organic farms in Ecuador.

Both certifications are a vast improvement on the flower that is treated with chemicals. Organic may be best for the environment, but “sustainable” flowers provide several ecological benefits as well, such as providing clean jobs to workers, many in the third world. Every certified flower you buy helps twice. It means less pollution now, and it encourages more growers to go green.

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 OrganicBouquet.com than at 1-800-flowers.com. A dozen of the organic variety sells for roughly $50, whereas a traditional dozen sells for about $60, unless you go to the local corner store, where, at least in some cities, conventional long-stem roses can sell for $12 a dozen or less (without a vase). The only downside to certification for the consumer seems to be the possible confusion about what the various labels mean, especially if there is a risk of “greenwashing” to give a false appearance. Certification programs are only as strong as their strictness, so many people in the green flower business are eager to develop industry-wide standards. The approval of VeriFlora criteria by the American National Standards Institute would mark an important step in that direction.

Otherwise, as Amy Stewart, author of Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers, said, “I absolutely agree that certification is the future. Life on any kind of certified farm is better than it would be on a noncertified farm.”

“In a few years,” Prolman, ever the optimist, declared, “you won’t be able to buy an uncertified flower.”


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. When Prolman came to Ecuador, he found that the owners were already refining their innovative practices. On a sunny October morning, I met the manager, Fernando Duran, who is passionate about efforts to make the farm healthy for flowers and workers. He told me the farm now uses a quarter of the pesticides it used 20 years ago. In an effort to eliminate pesticides, Duran said, a researcher at LatinFlor had found a natural biological control for a stubborn pest, the leaf miner.

He took me into a field of baby’s breath. (About 60 percent of the baby’s breath grown in Ecuador gets exported to the United States.) In surrounding fields, blue delphiniums were just coming into bloom under the bright equatorial sun. Duran wanted to show me a method the farm was using to control the leaf miner. As the name suggests, this insect bores into the leaves of flowers, creating ugly brown tracks. LatinFlor’s scientist had found a natural enemy, a wasp, that attacks the leaf miner’s larvae. He then developed a vacuum that could be used on every plant, sucking up the dead leaf miners. 

In a field of baby’s breath, Duran proudly showed me the insect-sweeping vacuums. “I’m happy to see organic is possible,” he said. “Our children and grandchildren will reap the harvest.”

In California I made a trip to B&H Flowers, a VeriFlora-certified farm on the coast south of Santa Barbara. Its owner, Hans Brand, developed his love of flowers as a child in Holland. Together we walked through greenhouses filled with the brilliant colors of Gerber daisies—red and orange and yellow. “It’s not easy to make all the changes to be certified,” he told me. “It was scary at first, but it’s a better product for all involved.”

In the greenhouses Brand introduced me to one of his workers, a man named Alberto Arroyo. About 10 years ago at a company barbecue, Brand offered him and all of his other Hispanic employees—about two-thirds of his workforce—a raise if they would learn English. Many of those who accepted the challenge went on to management positions in Brand’s company. Arroyo is now the manager of biological pest control. Among rows of ruby-colored Gerber daisies, he showed me blue flags marking flowers with insects that he was working to eliminate, using natural means. “I like to play with bugs,” Arroyo explained, smiling self-consciously.

A few days later I explored an organic farm north of San Diego. In 1999 Armando Garcia left the University of San Diego and asked his dad if he could market all the products from the family’s organic farm instead of just selling at one market once a week. Now Garcia’s farm, which was certified in 1991, is a thriving business. “These trees have never seen a pesticide,” Garcia told me proudly.

At 29 he is the hip, young face of the organic movement, sporting a goatee and dressed in a black T-shirt and baseball cap. His mother, he said, is the farm’s “rose queen.” Bucking agribusiness’s leaning toward monocultures, Garcia grows close to 100 different kinds of fruits, from oranges to peaches, figs to avocados. Most of his roses go to restaurants and consumers for cookies, ice cream, and wedding cakes. “You can eat anything on my farm,” he said. “Smell ’em. They’re real roses.”

As I sniffed a rose called a Fragrant Cloud, I realized it was humming with bees. That’s when it really hit me: These were not industrial flowers; this farm was also living habitat. Anna’s hummingbirds flashed red heads and throats amid the flowers. A red-shouldered hawk screamed in the cloudless blue sky. A blue grosbeak shimmered in the sun on a wire above the mulberries.

Considerable research proves that organic practices benefit wildlife. A 2005 study in the Journal of Applied Ecology reviewed 66 studies and found that, on average, birds and other animals “were 50 percent more abundant on organic farming systems” compared with conventional ones. Eighty-four percent of the studies showed that there are more species of plants, birds, and insects on organic farms.

The Garcia property offered absolute proof. “Do you see mountain lions here?” I asked him.

“Once,” he said. “Sometimes we see bobcats.”

As if by magic, 15 minutes later a bobcat sauntered out of a grove of Meiwa kumquats right in front of us, crossed the dirt road, and sat in the shadow of Fremont tangerines. Looking at us with casual disregard, the cat’s golden eyes reflected brightly in the shade, and its ears stood erect. Here was the climax of my quest: a living reason to buy certified-organic flowers, further enhanced by the skies overhead, dotted with hummingbirds, hawks, and grosbeaks.

As the bobcat ambled off, Garcia said simply, “Organic is the future. People and animals like it more.”