A Bouquet of Pesticides – The Dark Side of Flowers

Pesticides have a dramatic impact on the health of ecosystems, posing real risks to pollinating insects, such as bees.  But did you know that your favourite bouquet may be posing a risk to your own well-being?

The Flower Trade

A photograph showing a busy cut flowers warehouse in the Netherlands.
A large flower warehouse run by Royal FloraHolland.

The ornamental plant sector is very diverse, and very profitable.

Floriculture includes the production of floral crops, such as cut flowers, cut foliage, flower bulbs, potted flowering, as well as foliage and bedding plants.

And today, the international cut flowers market represents about 30 billion Euros per year.

The Aalsmeer Flower Auction in the Netherlands is the largest flower auction in the World.  Truly, it is the “Wall Street” of flowers where 12 billion flowers and plants transit every year from Europe, and further afield from Ethiopia, Kenya, Israel, even Ecuador and Colombia.

Retail shares of cut flower and indoor potted plant sales, 2015 Source: UN-Comtrade/Royal FloraHolland (2016)

Europe and North America are the main markets.

The European demand of cut flowers (cut flowers and pots) is estimated to 13 billion Euros, equivalent to 50% of the World’s demand.

But there is a much more sinister side to this flourishing business.

The environmental impact of the floricultural industry is well-known.  And less well-reported are the many dangerous pesticides hiding in your bouquets.

Environmental Consequences

Like grapes in January, or pineapples, tomatoes and avocados all year, the majority of cut flowers are cultivated in a greenhouse with a lot of water and energy.

World Floriculture Map Source: Rabobank

These flowers are grown in remote parts of the World thousands of kilometres awayAnd transported to customers by plane.

Additionally, the loss of acreage to natural habitats, covered over with plastic to grow flowers, on land that could be feeding the surrounding populations.

Depletion of aquifers for intensive year-round irrigation is also taking its toll.  The amount of water used to produce a single long-stemmed rose is estimated at more than three gallons.

But a cut flower bouquet is also often a cocktail of chemicals.

Pretty, but Toxic

Many people get headaches around flowers and plants, and assume they are allergic to them.  However, it could be that you are having a reaction to the chemical residues on the flowers.

The floriculture industry uses astronomical quantities of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides.  In the Netherlands, growing roses requires seven times more pesticides than growing maize.

Number of active substances detected on flower bouquets, for three species. Source: Schiffers et al. 2016

Azoxystrobin, Benomyl, Boscalid, Clofentezine, Fenhexamid, Flonicamid, Fluodioxonil, Fluopyram, Imidacloprid, Iprodione, Luneferon, Methiocarb, Pirimicarb, Procymidone, Spiroxamine

In February 2018, the NGO Greenpeace conducted a survey on very common flowers.  The researchers found up to 43 different pesticide residues in Dutch bouquets:

    • On gerberas up to 7.
    • On roses up to 10.
    • And on the mixed bouquets up to 25 different pesticides.

Behind this beautiful bouquet lies a world of very toxic chemicals.  And people do not know it.  We have done tests and the results are very worrying.  The flowers receive a cocktail of different toxic pesticides.  There is a combination of neonicotinoid pesticides – these bee killers – and banned pesticides.  One-third of all pesticides used are illegal.  What worries me the most is this cocktail of pesticides.

Herman van Bekkem, Greenpeace

No European Limit

A photograph showing an imperfect orange flower missing some petals.
The quality of cut flowers is expected to be perfect.

As in any intensive culture, flower growers make use of a wide range of pesticides to control diseases and pests, which can damage production and marketability.

Unlike food, however, there is absolutely no limit in Europe for using chemicals on flowers…

In the Netherlands, growing vegetables year-round requires an average of 12.5 kg of pesticides per hectare annually.

The cultivation of roses requires 84 kg/h/a.

Even worse, the cultivation of lily bulbs requires 125 kg/h/a!

This is all so that the desired quality outcomes for the flowers can be achieved: no holes in the leaves; no stains on the petals.

All because the consumer demands an absolutely perfect product.

Pesticide Poisoning in the Industry

Many pesticides applied on flowers are persistent, dislodgeable by contact with the hands, and are fat-soluble.  They can easily be absorbed through skin contact.

Number of active substances detected on flower bouquets, for three species, belonging to each category of acute toxicity hazard for the dermal route of exposure.  Source: Schiffers et al. 2016


Testing conducted in the late 70s and 90s revealed this dark side of flowers.

Occupational Exposure

Back in 1979, research highlighted the problem of pesticide poisoning from cut flowers.

The study published in the American Journal of Public Health was conducted following reports of 10 cases of organophosphate poisoning in florists.

The researchers conducted a random-sample survey to assess the residual pesticide levels on flowers imported into the US via Miami, Florida.

The sample of all flowers imported into Miami on three days, showed that 18 % of 105 lots contained pesticide residue levels greater than 5 ppm.  Three lots had levels greater than 400 ppm!

The study documented a previously unrecognised potential source of occupational pesticide exposure and recommended safety standards should be introduced for chemical residue levels on cut flowers.

A 1990 study found that Colombian workers in the floriculture industry were exposed to 127 different pesticides in Colombia.

A moderate increase in the prevalence of abortion, prematurity, and congenital malformations was detected for pregnancies occurring after the start of work in floriculture.

Clearly, the issue is not new.

Flowers can be a major source of exposure to pesticides, whether you buy cut flowers on a regular basis, or work in the flower industry.

And as florists handle the flowers every day in the course of their work, the exposure risk is also chronic.

The Dark Side of Flowers

Source: Schiffers et al. (2016)

Fifteen years onward, a study assessing the risk factors of pesticide exposure among FiIipino flower farmers, found 32% reported pesticide-related illnesses since starting work in the flower business, with symptoms ranging from weakness and fatigue, to muscle pain, chills and fever, blurred vision, dizziness and headache.

And there is much more research.

DNA adducts, indicative of early-stage cancer, were present in 60% of longtime floriculturist industry workers.

A 1999 study in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine concluded that the incidence of prostate and testicular cancers among male floriculturist pesticide applicators was significantly elevated.  Cervical cancer was significantly increased among females applicators.

A 2003 study published in Mutation Research found that over 71% of flower growers around the World showed genetic damage.

Under the Radar

For decades now, cut flowers and plants have mostly flown under the radar.

A 2013 study from the US co-authored by Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute found that a variety of “bee-friendlyplants sold in home gardening centres contained neurotoxic pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

The results included pre-treated plants that would be attractive to bees and pollinators: tomatoes, squash, and flowers.


Environmental fate and pathways of exposure to neonicotinoid insecticides: post-application scenario  Source: Kurwadkar & Evans (2016)

Neonicotinoids are a family of neuro-active insecticides, chemically similar to the nicotine that is found in cigarettes.

In the 1990s, Bayer started work on their development.

Compared to organophosphate herbicides and insecticides, neonicotinoids cause less toxicity in birds and mammals than in insects.

Neonicotinoid use has been linked to adverse ecological effects, including honey-bee colony collapse disorder (CCD) and loss of birds due to a reduction in insect populations.

Neonicotinoids are known to get into pollen and nectar affecting pollinating insects, notably bees.

Growth of the “Slow Flower” Movement

Producing flowers in season is the idea behind the “slow flower” movement.

Flowers are grown locally. They are organic.

Flowers are not delivered far.  They don’t travel abroad and are sold only to the local community.

Growers let the seasons do their thing…

Organic farming in the Netherlands accounts for a mere 3.5%.

That’s only half the average of its European neighbours, and the flower market is a tiny part of it.

If today organic production almost always stops at the plate of the consumer, more and more Dutch horticulturists seek to change the deal, and make their trade more respectful of the environment.

Around 100 crop species provide 90% of food globally.

Of these crops, 70% are pollinated by bees.

The stakes could not be any higher.