ROME, 18 April 2002 -- Most people don't eat flowers. But they are an important source of food security because of the income they bring to thousands of people -- most of them women -- in developing countries.

And yet flowers have not, until recently, been held to the same ecological or health standards that pertain to edible agricultural products. US and European regulations on chemical residues for flowers, for example, are less stringent than for food. Moreover supermarkets, where cut flowers and bouquets prepared in the country of origin are increasingly being sold, have exacting cosmetic standards and cannot afford to sell flowers damaged by pests. All these factors raise the potential risk of exposure for workers.

However, environmental awareness and ethical concerns of consumers in developed countries are growing. They, along with trade unions, are putting pressure on the global floriculture industry to develop and conform to codes of conduct for workers' health and safety.

Environmental and ethical concerns of consumers also offer smallholders in developing countries a chance to create a lucrative niche market without degrading their environment or their health. "Flowers are important for food security because of the income they generate," says Wilfried Baudoin, who heads FAO's horticultural crops service. "And so reducing pesticide use is a business issue as well as a development and health issue."

Bread from tuber roses for Kenya's rural poor

This is why Kevin Gallagher, an FAO expert in integrated production and pest management, recently found himself in a field in Nyeri, in central Kenya, surrounded by women growing flowers and specialty legumes as an alternative to subsistence farming. More than 5 500 women's groups are active in the area, and many of them have asked for technical support on pesticide issues. "We're helping growers learn about safe alternatives in pest management," he explains. "They haven't been fully informed about good practices, so they misuse pesticide compounds."

This is where integrated production and pest management comes in. In community-based farmer field schools, farmers learn about improving their management of the ecosystem. They are then able to encourage natural predators of crop pests and reduce the amount of pesticides they use.

The women in Nyeri grow high-value export crops like snow peas, and flowers such as limonium and tuber rose, which they sell to larger growers as fillers for bouquets, as well as legumes. No significant domestic markets exist for the legumes, so the field schools also teach marketing for export. "It's a double challenge for us all," says Mr Gallagher. "But the women are very determined -- most of them are saving to send their children to school -- and they have organized very effectively."

The groups in Nyeri have already set up their own revolving loan funds, and their produce competes with that of large growers -- they grow so much that exporters send a truck every other day to pick up more supplies.

Green fingers don't always mean green practices

Horticulture is the fastest-growing sector of Kenya's economy, bringing in over US$270 million in 2000, with cut flowers representing US$110 million. Although it was only established in 1972, the horticulture industry is on a par with Kenya's traditional hard currency earners -- tea, coffee and tourism -- in revenues.

But such rapid growth has hidden costs -- environmental as well as human. These were outlined at a conference in February organized by the Kenya Human Rights Commission. Environmental groups at the conference said that the pesticides applied by the flower growers threaten Lake Naivasha, around which many plantations are concentrated, and that local hippo populations were also under threat. Lake Naivasha is one of Kenya's few freshwater lakes.

This is a perception that the Kenya Flower Council, the main industry association, is tryinghard to shake. It has established codes of conduct covering working conditions, including pesticide exposure, for its members. These efforts are especially timely, says Rod Evans, the Council chair, because of a growing trend in developed countries for consumers to make ethical choices in the marketplace. "Our members understand that it is in our own interest to preserve the environment," he says.

Last year FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme set up a project to validate alternatives to methyl bromide, a powerful soil fumigant being phased out under an international protocol to safeguard the ozone layer. The project included establishing field schools for large growers around Lake Naivasha. Developing countries have agreed to phase out methyl bromide by 2015, a decade after developed countries. In the meantime, they have agreed to freeze its use at the same levels as 1998.

According to Ricardo Labrada, FAO's focal expert for methyl bromide substitution, an integrated production and pest management approach to developing alternatives is important because methyl bromide is so toxic. "Methyl bromide kills nearly all soil-borne pests. Other single control measures are not as effective, so we need to find an integrated solution."

This means that growers in Europe and North America are more likely to lobby their governments to ban the import of products grown using the compound. This could open a wider window for Kenya's green-fingered gardeners, people like Jafeth Maina Wamwiri, the chair of Wamahoa ("of flowers") Farmer Field School in Kiambu near Nyeri. "The export crops have changed our lives. We have new roofs, better homes and our children can go to school. We need to make sure those people in other countries continue to buy our flowers."