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With steady sunshine and cheap labor, Colombian farms yield $1 billion in exports, dominating the United States market. (Ivan Kashinsky)

The Secrets Behind Your Flowers

Chances are the bouquet you're about to buy came from Colombia. What's behind the blooms?

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Most flowers grown in Colombia are bred in European labs, especially Dutch labs, which ship seedlings and cuttings to growers. A single gerbera plant, for instance, can last several years and produce hundreds of blooms, each one taking 8 to 12 weeks to mature. Growers change colors constantly, rotating new plants in depending on the season or consumer mood. “The tendency now is monochromatic, purple on purple,” said Catalina Mojica, who works for M.G. Consultores on labor and environmental sustainability issues. “We are two years behind fashion—usually European fashion.” Indeed, two years earlier, several top European clothing designers had featured purple in their lines.

Not so long ago, Americans got their flowers from neighborhood florists, who bought blooms grown on U.S. farms. Florists crafted bouquets and arrangements to order. They still do, of course, but this approach seems increasingly quaint. These days, the bouquets that many Americans buy, typically at supermarkets, are grown, assembled and packaged overseas. At the C.I. Agroindustria del Riofrío farm, adjacent to M.G. Consultores, dozens of bouquet assemblers were nearly swallowed up by bulging piles of gerberas, alstroemeria and sprigs of baby’s breath, all to be precisely arranged and bundled in zebra-striped plastic wrap.

Adjacent to the assembly line were spacious storerooms kept at about 34 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s no understatement to say the entire flower industry depends on that number. Selling flowers is, at bottom, an attempt to outwit death, and near-freezing temperatures can delay the inevitable. Cut a flower, and its ability to photosynthesize food from light, carbon dioxide and water soon ceases. Stored food is depleted and the flower wilts. Putting flowers in water slows that process, but only cold temperatures can arrest it for weeks at a time. It took the development of “cold chains”—refrigerated warehouses and trucks every point along the way—to ensure that flowers remain in suspended animation from farm to store.

In the cold rooms, boxes containing flowers are attached to refrigeration units that infuse them with chilled air. Then they’re stacked on pallets, which are wrapped in plastic and loaded onto trucks and driven to Miami-bound planes. (The Queen’s Flowers Corporation, one of the top importers in Miami, receives 3,000 boxes of Colombian blooms, or five tractor-trailers’ worth, on a typical day. And its shipments multiply three times during busy seasons.) It takes about 48 hours for flowers to get from a field in Colombia to a warehouse in the United States, and one or two more days to reach a retailer.

This industrial machine has been assembled at some cost. As the flower business grew, researchers for labor and environmental organizations documented the sorts of problems that typify developing economies. From the beginning, the majority of the tens of thousands of job-seekers who migrated to the savanna were women, and many of them were single mothers. Most workers made the minimum wage, which is now about $250 per month. Many of them reported sexual harassment by male bosses; working long hours without breaks; and repetitive stress injuries with no employer-provided treatment or time off. As recently as 1994, a Colombian sociologist found children as young as 9 working in greenhouses on Saturdays, and children 11 and up working 46-hour weeks in almost all areas of the farms.

A 1981 survey of almost 9,000 flower workers by scientists from Colombia, France and Britain found that the work had exposed people to as many as 127 different chemicals, mostly fungicides and pesticides. (One incentive to use pesticides: the U.S. Department of Agriculture checks imported flowers for insects, but not for chemical residues.) A 1990 study by Colombia’s National Institute of Health (NIH) suggested that pregnant Colombian flower workers exposed to pesticides might have higher rates of miscarriages, premature births and babies with congenital defects.

Colombia’s flower industry has also been profligate in its use of a vital natural resource: fresh water. Producing a single rose bloom requires as much as three gallons of water, according to a study of the Kenyan flower industry by scientists at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. The Bogotá area receives 33 inches of rainfall annually, but after flower farms and other users drilled more than 5,000 wells on the savanna, groundwater levels plunged. One engineering study reported that springs, streams and wetlands were disappearing. As Bogotá continues to expand, the city and the flower industry will be competing for the same dwindling supply.

In the 1990s, the Colombia flower industry’s success in American and European markets drew attention to its practices; a stream of reports about harsh treatment of workers and depletion of natural resources followed. At the same time, consumers began to care more about how their goods were being produced, so Colombia’s flower farms began to respond. “It’s definitely improved over time, particularly as a result of the different organizations giving everybody adverse publicity,” says Catherine Ziegler, author of the book Favored Flowers, about the global industry.

In 1996, Colombia began a series of initiatives, still underway, to eliminate child labor, and international labor groups report that it has been greatly reduced in the cut-flower business. Farms belonging to the flower exporters association, Asocolflores (about 75 percent of the total), have moved to replace the more hazardous classes of agricultural chemicals, says Marcela Varona, a scientist at the environmental health laboratory at Colombia’s NIH. (But researchers note that flower workers who have used hazardous chemicals in the past may continue to be affected for years.)

In addition, the flower industry created Florverde, a voluntary certification program that requires participating farms to meet targets for sustainable water use and follow internationally recognized safety guidelines for chemical applications. At several farms I visited, the plastic sheeting on greenhouse roofs had been extended and reshaped to collect rainwater. Farms participating in Florverde have reduced their groundwater use by more than half by collecting and using rainwater, says Ximena Franco Villegas, the program’s director.

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