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
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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