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Why You Can Thank Our War on Drugs For Roses Grown by Exploited Labor and Toxic Chemicals

You may want to think twice about buying roses this Valentine's Day.

Photo Credit: © Grigoriy Pil/ Shutterstock.com


This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

When your love hands you a gorgeous bouquet of large, red, long-stemmed roses this Valentine’s Day, as any botanist will tell you, you’re getting a bunch of sex organs. Although the roses are more beautiful, fragrant and socially acceptable than other methods that might get the same point across (just ask former Congressman Anthony Weiner), there’s a lot more to those roses than meets the eye.

Unfortunately, the romancing of women in the United States often means the exploitation of women in countries like Colombia and Ecuador.

The preference the U.S. gives Colombian and Ecuadorian flower exports has a lot to do with another export from those nations: cocaine. By 1990, South American imports already accounted for more than 40 percent of roses sold in the United States. Then, in 1991, Congress passed the Andean Trade Preference Act. The idea was simple: maybe if we help cocaine-producing nations sell us other things, like roses, they’ll be less interested in selling us cocaine.

Back then, a wholesale rose sold in San Francisco for about 52 cents. How could it compete with a rose imported to Miami from Colombia, tariff-free, that sold for as little as 6 cents? By 2007, 60 percent of all flowers sold in the U.S. – including 70 percent of all roses – came from Colombia. Simultaneously, 85 percent of Colombia’s flowers were sold to the U.S.

In Colombia, most roses are grown in an area known as the Savannah of Bogota, an area around the capital at an altitude of 8,000 feet. There, the floriculture industry has covered thousands of hectares with plastic greenhouses to grow roses and sucked up much of the groundwater to irrigate them. Nearby springs, streams and wetlands began disappearing. The majority of workers in the industry are women, and as of 2007, the flower industry represented one quarter of all rural employment for Colombian women.

Ecuador’s rose industry got a late start compared to Colombia’s, and although Colombia still leads in the U.S. market, Ecuador accounts for a sizable chunk. By 2003, Ecuador exported two-thirds of its 500 million roses to the United States. As in Colombia, the majority of floriculture workers in Ecuador are women.

Throughout the two decades South American imports have enjoyed tariff-free entry to the U.S., a host of criticisms have been repeated year after year, from excessive pesticide use and occupational health hazards to low pay and sexual harassment of workers.

Roses, which are not (usually) eaten, are not subject to the same pesticide regulations as food. According to one estimate, nearly one quarter of the cost of rose production comes from pesticides, mostly fungicides and insecticides. When grown in chemically based monocultures, roses are susceptible to fungal diseases like downy mildew and infestations from mites, tiny arachnids no larger than the period at the end of a sentence. Neither can be allowed on a rose, both because of fears of importing exotic pests into the United States from South America, and because nobody would buy a bouquet covered in bugs and fungus.

Once the negative reports began rolling in, the South American rose growers began working to clean up their acts. After all, with so much of their production going to the U.S., it would devastate them if American consumers decided they could not buy roses that were grown using child labor (a common complaint at the time) or environmentally dangerous practices.

The Colombian flower industry launched the voluntary “Florverde” (“Green Flower”) certification. It promises better water management, such as rainwater harvesting, and safer use of agrochemicals. Still, as of 2011, fewer than half of Colombia’s flower operations participated in the Florverde self-regulation scheme. A report by War on Want claims it is a mere greenwashing scheme, noting that 36 percent of the pesticides used were considered "extremely" or "highly" toxic by the World Trade Organization.

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