PANNA: Floriculture: Pesticides, Worker Health & Codes of Conduct


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Floriculture: Pesticides, Worker Health & Codes of Conduct
June 12, 2002

In many cultures fresh cut flowers are deeply symbolic. As a gift they embody a universal desire for connection–to other people, to the beauty of nature, to God. What is deeply ironic is the extreme disparity between the symbol and the real circumstances of their production. Fact is, the rapidly growing floriculture industry is a heavy user of pesticides and is poisoning its workers and the environment in a number of Latin American and African nations.

A May 2002 cover story in Environmental Health Perspectives, published by the U.S. Department of Health, pulled together current research on worker and environmental health in the cut flower industry, which is increasingly concentrated in countries that are near the equator with low labor costs. Holland remains the world’s largest producer of cut flowers, but Colombia is now a close second–one of every two flowers sold in the U.S. is grown in the Colombian savanna surrounding Bogota. Colombia flower workers number 80,000, with another 50,000 in packaging and transportation. China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe all now export cut flowers. According to a report by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers and Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN), 190,000 people in developing countries work in the flower business.

A 2000 report by Gwen Curtis, One Woman’s Present, Another Woman’s Poison, traces the growth and globalization of the cut flower industry, which grew by a factor of nine between 1994 and 1999. International development agencies push floriculture as an exportable alternative to traditional crops, but increased competition for water and croplands near transportation centers has created conflicts with indigenous farmers. In rural economies where food shortages are routine, the large-scale production of resource-intensive, non-edible crops does not contribute to food security.

Environmental & Worker Health

Statistics on pesticide use in the industry are hard to obtain, but flower growers use a variety of fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, nematocides and plant growth regulators. In the U.S., flower imports are not inspected for pesticide residues because they are not edible; however, since flowers are considered an agricultural product, they must be pest-free when imported. As a result, trade regulations in countries like the U.S. and Japan actually promote use of the highly toxic fumigant methyl bromide, also a potent ozone depleter, for some flower exports.

Pesticides can cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive and nervous system damage, and floriculture workers are exposed at numerous stages of plant growth. Worker exposure is of particular concern in greenhouses, where up to 127 different chemicals are used in enclosed spaces–increasing risk of exposure through the skin and by inhalation. According to one study, some flower greenhouses in Mexico’s state of Morelos, use 36 different pesticides, including the persistent organochlorines DDT, aldrin and dieldrin. A study of fern and flower workers in Costa Rica found that over 50% of respondents had at least one symptom of pesticide poisoning, such as headache, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, skin eruptions or fainting. In Ecuador, nearly 60% of workers surveyed showed poisoning symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, hand-trembling and blurred vision. Reproductive problems are also a concern; studies of the largely female workforce in Colombia found moderate increases in miscarriages and birth defects among children conceived after either parent started working in floriculture. A Danish study of Colombian flower workers concluded that female floriculture workers had reduced ability to become pregnant, and that sperm concentrations were 40% lower in male workers with long term exposure (more than 10 years). Indications of genetic damage were also found in studies of workers exposed to organochlorines in greenhouses in Mexico.

Environmental Health Perspectives
also reports disturbing environmental impacts. For example, after intensive water use by floriculture, the water table has dropped under the savanna surrounding Bogota. In Costa Rica, pesticide residues are directly discharged into waterways, pesticide equipment is washed into streams and rivers, and runoff is allowed to enter important, acquifer recharge areas.

Consumer’s Choice for Workers Rights

In the early 1990’s, as consumers were increasingly concerned about conditions in the cut flower industry Food First Information and Action Network and Bread for the World began a European campaign to certify flower producers. In 1999, the Flower Label Program was launched in Germany. Growers sign on to an International Code of Conduct (ICC) for the socially and environmentally sustainable production of cut flowers. Based on the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICC mandates living wages, the freedom to join trade unions, a ban on child labor, guaranteed health and security standards, reduced use of pesticides and protection of the environment.

The industry has responded with voluntary certification programs, such as Florverde in Colombia, Sello Verde in Ecuador and the Kenyan Flower Council, each with different standards based on their country’s regulations. The programs offer some improvements in worker safety but do not approach the protections in the International Code of Conduct particularly for workers rights to free association and to form their own unions. A current FIAN campaign is focused on basic organizing rights for a Colombia flower workers union. (Contact FIAN Deutschland e.V. for information, below.)

As the Flower Label Program’s coalition of labor and environmental advocates continue their course, the cut flower industry’s promotional phrase, “Say it with flowers” will gain a new subtext; “Say yes to environmental health and social justice.”

Sources: “The Bloom on the Rose, Looking Into the Floriculture Industry”, Focus, pp. 240-247, Environmental Health Perspectives, Journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, May 2002, Vol. 110, #5; Public health Service, U.S. Dept of Health & Human Services, Washington DC. and Gwen Curtis, “One Woman’s Present, Another Woman’s Poison,” for the abstract:

For more on the Flower Label Program: FoodFirst Information and Action Network, FIAN Deutschland e.V., Die Blumen-Kampagne, Overwegstr. 31, D-44625 Herne, Germany; phone (49-02323) 490-099; fax (49-02323) 490-018; email; Web site

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