Roses have been manufactured into a symbol of love, lust, and desire âe” a reminder of that certain someone who is thinking about you. Rarely do we consider that the majority of rose plantations are located in developing nations and that rose production revolves around Valentineâe(TM)s Day in high-income countries.

These plantations often employ young workers with a minimal education. Environmental and health standards are ignored and agrochemicals are utilized in abundance, drastically affecting the health of the workers and their families. Ironically, our symbol of love inflicts suffering among the 200,000 workers worldwide in the cut flower industry. This Valentine’s Day, can we smell our roses innocently?

I recently visited a flower farm in Cayambe, about two hours north of Quito, Ecuador. It came as quite a shock to realize the amount that goes into producing something as merely aesthetic as roses. Soils are first drenched in nematocides to create a sterile environment and then supplemented with fertilizers. Greenhouse workers are responsible for ensuring the perfect pest-free growth of the roses as they are continuously sprayed with pesticides. Following a harvest, the roses are hand-dipped in fungicides and trimmed and grouped into bouquets in an assembly line fashion. Finally, the flowers are refrigerated, transported by truck to the nearest airport, and then to their destination country.

Flower prototypes are genetically engineered to meet international expectations of the “perfect flower.” Agrochemicals are employed to optimize production. Sophisticated infrastructure is required to ship flowers to their international destinations. These changes have led to the abandonment of traditional farming methods, thus radically affecting the lives of those living in nearby communities.

As I am currently working on a public health project looking at the health effects of pesticide use in floriculture, I set out to learn more about these impacts. Jaime Breihl, Dean of Public Health at the Universidad Andina and director of the Centro de Estudias y Assesoria en Salud in Quito, Ecuador, had a lot to say. He is currently managing a large interdisciplinary study investigating these impacts in Cayambe, Ecuador. While the relative space occupied by the flower farms is small (4500 hectares out of a 9 million hectare agribusiness frontier), the farms do not go unnoticed. “Flower farms are so penetrating in the economical, sociological and environmental systems in the area; this is the kind of impact that we are worried about,” says Breihl.

The Ecuadorian rose industry has experienced tremendous growth over the years. In 1991, cut flower plantations occupied about 250 hectares; now, that number is estimated to be over 4500. This growth has been largely influenced by green revolution technology. The agrarian reform of the 1960s stimulated more “efficient” land use in Ecuador. Consequently, much of this land was transformed into monocultures of profitable and exportable crops. Breihl explains, “Many old farms were bought, or changed by economical agreements. Farm owners sold their farms to new national/international enterprises or used their farms as an investment.”

When asked how this growth has affected the communities of Cayambe, Breihl adds, “The towns around the plantations are now modern places. Health patterns have been changed. Relations with community support organizations have been weakened. The young people no longer pertain to their communities.”

The responsibility and initiative taken by flower farms to produce socially and ecologically just flowers is questionable. With very few regulations in place, cut flower farms use numerous pesticides that have been banned in North America and Europe. “Although there are important written legal norms in the [Ecuadorian] legislature regarding pesticide use, these norms are only stated and do not create or reinforce their implementation nor guarantee their institutional and financial backing,” says Breihl. Also, as flowers are an agricultural export, they must be pest free upon arriving to their final destination. However, since they are not an edible crop, they are exempt from pesticide residue regulations and are not inspected.

Chronic pesticide exposure in agricultural workers has been correlated with a broad range of non-specific symptoms such as memory impairment, fatigue, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, difficulty breathing, tremors, decreased motor skills, dexterity and strength. As education regarding these health effects is lacking, workers do often not recognize that they are experiencing low dose-chronic pesticide exposure and rarely report these symptoms at work or seek medical help. These debilitating effects can leave many young workers at a loss when their chronic health problems prohibit their ability to find post-floriculture employment.

Social standards in flower farms are also neglected, as workers are predominantly young with basic educational levels. Workers are willing to compromise their health at a minimum wage without contracts, benefits, or training/educational programs in these plantations. In the past, when workers have coordinated to create unions, they have been struck down, bribed, or fired. Sexual harassment is rampant.

The monopolization and environmental contamination of water systems by flower plantations is a persistent problem. “Plantations intensively use chemicals to produce the ‘perfect flower’ for the market, but also they are using enormous amount of water which must compete with food production,” says Breihl. Heavy metals from pesticides, such as chrome, manganese and zinc, seep into the water ways. Nitrogen and sulfur find their way into the surrounding rivers, originating from the excessive use of industrial chemical fertilizers.

There is some effort to create healthy, environmentally and socially sound rose plantations. Some 45 flower farms occupying 1000 hectares in Ecuador subscribe to the Flower Label Program (FLP). FLP ensures that flower plantations abide by standards which guarantee fundamental labour and environments rights.

Arturo Campaña, a medical doctor and FLP inspector explains how FLP rules are enforced. “FLP farms must open their doors to scheduled inspections at least once per year where the social, health, environmental standards are evaluated. Additionally, unannounced spot checks are conducted at random to guarantee compliance of FLP rules.” If a farm fails an inspection, they must submit a plan of action to improve the conditions on the farm. Campaña adds, “All farms know that if they do not comply by the rules, they will lose their certification.”

While programs such as FLP have initiated the idea of responsible rose production, the demand for roses on Valentine’s Day persists. During this busy season, plantation workers are forced to work overtime with infrequent breaks. Pesticide regulations are neglected and the most neurotoxic chemicals are employed in obscene doses. Education about pesticide use is forgotten and, as workers are rushed and pressed for time, protective equipment during chemical application is often inadequate. If these violations exist in the 45 FLP certified farms, you can imagine what might go on in other 3500 uncertified and unregulated hectares of plantations in Ecuador.

The social, health, and environmental violations at rose plantations are profound, but are relatively unheard of in North America. The ignorance of the flower consumer is far-reaching; a rose is just a rose, no labels or strings attached. “Fair-trade” flowers are not a common piece to come by. However, we can sip our lattes guilt free because we know where our coffee comes from. In Canada, our supermarkets are stocked with selections of coffee, each label containing information indicating the country of origin and whether the beans are fair trade, organic, shade grown, etc. This labeling technique has been successful in increasing consumer awareness.

When I asked Breihl about the possibility of creating a similar flower labeling system in North America, he says, “This is already a reality in Europe. In Germany there was a national clean fair flower campaign that combined the concerns of unions and of importers to create the FLP. We are dreaming of the day this will happen in North America.”

As Valentine’s Day arrives in the middle of our Canadian winter, the florists are stocked with roses. Do we ever stop to think about where these flowers come from? Try asking your friends, or even your local florist. The answers you will get are evidence of the ignorance surrounding the cut flower industry. In 2007, roses accounted for 25 percent of Ecuadorian exports to Canada; it is time to consider the impact of each rose we purchase.

We need to create awareness and a demand for “fair trade” flowers. We need to pressure the floriculture industry and governments to enforce regulations and create transparency in legal, environmental and health issues.

“We need to show the rose consumer what is behind flower production. The beauty of the flower has to be coherent with ways of producing that flower that do not obstruct nature or human lives, nor create social inequality. We need to let the consumer know that a rose is product of love, not of greed,” concludes Breihl.

Maybe a label is a good place to start.