long-stemmed red rose on black

A dozen long-stemmed roses. It’s the cinematic or greeting card ideal version of Valentine’s Day. The very picture of romantic love…but if we scratch just lightly at the surface of this idealized picture, what do we find?

Roses can have an enormous cost, not just hitting you in your wallet, but hitting all of us with an oversized carbon footprint.

Nearly 80% of the 4 billion-plus cut flower stems purchased in the United States come from Colombia and Ecuador, from which they are shipped out around the world (closer to the equator, flowers grow straight and tall with the sun being more directly overhead).

About 200 million roses will arrive in the US for Valentine’s Day, representative of tons of pesticides

The plastic–covered greenhouses that have overrun Colombian open fields employ tens of thousands of workers in what most say are horrendous conditions under tight security and barely-existent regulation. More than half of Ecuadorian and Colombian floral workers report work-related health problems, most—skin and eye problems, respiratory disfunction—traceable to toxic chemicals used for their jobs. The International Labor Rights Fund discovered "flower workers experience higher-than-average rates of premature births, congenital malformations, and miscarriages, and were subjected to 70- or 80-hour work weeks in high season.”

The floral growing operations in the U.S. are also some of the highest users of pesticides.

Most of the industry’s routine use of chemical weed killers and insecticides has long been contaminating water and soil for surrounding communities. They are creating regions so toxic that they cannot safely be used for anything intended as food or consumable by humans or other animals.

About 200 million roses will arrive in the US for Valentine’s Day, representative of tons of pesticides (an estimated 20% of which have been banned for use in North America), and getting them here rapidly enough to keep them fresh is hard, dirty work. Cargo planes to Miami from high in the Andes, refrigerated trucks and cooling lockers, through the power-draining cooling trail via wholesalers and eventually to your florist. Usually their trail is thousands of miles long.

If, upon USDA inspection any pests are discovered, entire trucks of rose are fumigated, and since they are not edibles, there is little care for toxicity (many florists recommend washing your hands after handling them, and brides are warned not to use roses on wedding cakes for fear of poisoning the icing.)

Of course, lots of cellophane sleeves and vases and florist foam and long boxes or vases are added to the equation. Sometimes every stem has a plastic test tube of water attached.

There are some cleaner alternatives, organic floral providers. The Veriflora program certifies flowers as sustainably cultivated and healthy, and Fair Trade USA certifies fair trade flower providers. Look for their labels and logos before you buy. Organic roses will cost about 10% more, but the safety of your love, and the ease for your mind seems like it’s worth those extra dollars and cents.

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About The Author

Andrew Mersmann's picture

Andrew is the author of Frommer's global guide to volunteer vacations, "500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference" (Gold Medal Winner from Society of American Travel Writers: Best Guide Book 2010). He spent more than a decade on the editorial team of PASSPORT Magazine. He has volunteered and led teams on service projects around the world, and is honored to be on the boards of directors for the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation (AARBF.org) and Mentor Artists Playwrights Project (mentorartists.org). Mersmann has been a featured speaker, interview guest, or moderator on several travel talks, from the New York Times Travel Show, Smithsonian Associates, and the 92nd Street Y-TriBeCa to Oprah and Friends, Animal House, and The Focus Group on satellite radio as well as on NY1 television. Past participant at the Clinton Global Initiative and judge for Condé Nast World Changers Conference, he blogs about volunteering and service travel at www.ChangeByDoing.com. As part of the evox television team, he is dedicated to audience engagement, so if you're not engaged, he needs to be thumped on the head (gently)...or at least told (nicely). Twitter: /ChangeByDoing

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