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Saying it with flowers may not be as sweet as you think. Ester Gerber would be less than thrilled to display a bouquet of flowers beside her microscope at work.
A researcher at a scientific lab in Switzerland, Gerber investigates natural alternatives to fight pests that attack food crops, ornamental plants and forests. As a scientist and environmentalist, she seeks natural, long-lasting ways to help get rid of weeds and damaging insects, instead of pouring poisons on plants to kill unwanted infestations. Already seven years ago, she could be heard telling colleagues that she does not support the cut flower industry.
Cut flowers and ornamental plants are grown for one main purpose: to be beautiful. In ensuring that every leaf is lovely and every petal pretty, flower growers in Israel are not restricted by the quantities of pesticides that can be applied in the field.
While Israelis benefit from inexpensive bundles of flowers and the country reaps more than $100 million in exports every year, few consider the possible consequences to our health and environment posed by the industry.
Israel is estimated to be the world's fourth largest producer of cut flowers, behind the Netherlands, Columbia and Kenya. Relatively high winter temperatures and light intensity make this country ideal for growing flowers. Especially during winter months, cut flowers and potted plants produced in Israel are shipped to international markets. Some 1.3 billion stems of flowers, some holding more than one bud, were flown out last year. The most popular export products are the solidago (goldenrod) flower and plants from the Philodendron family.
When it comes to the question of cultivating flowers organically, three sources at the Israel Bio-Organics Association (IBOAA) confirm that there are no organic flower growers in Israel. At the Ministry of Agriculture, Duby Wolfson, a product quality specialist from the floriculture department, says he had heard of an organic flower farm somewhere in the Galilee and hopes it is still in operation.
"There's no market for organic flowers in Israel," says Savion Preger. He his wife, Idith, tried growing organic edible flowers for restaurants and health stores three years ago but failed to make the business profitable. "Israel is not San Francisco. I cannot educate the people," says Preger, who continues growing organic strawberries and old-fashioned roses on Moshav Beit Halevi. Preger thinks the organic flower market will pick up one day.
Researchers at the Ministry of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Organization (ARO) agree that it is important to eat organic food but feel that growing organic flowers is not that important.
Itzik Nir, who founded and runs the organic seed company Genesis Seeds, once worked in conventional agriculture. He knows about the dangers of traditional agriculture and the problems chemicals can cause to our bodies and ecosystem.
Perhaps initially motivated by economic gains, "I started my company [in 1993] with a feeling that there would be an organic market," he says.
Today, Nir is driven by ideology. His organic flower seeds, he says, have a higher yield than non-organic varieties and are as high in quality as the best seeds on the market. About one-third of Nir's customers are in Israel - his seeds are bought by commercial flower growers and can also be found in small sachets in Home Center gardening corners. About 50% of Nir's flower seeds go to Britain, where they are sown in English country organic gardens.
Government incentives, says Nir, can certainly help change people's mind sets about switching to organic produce, as illustrated by the new incentives offered by Scandinavian countries that subsidize farmers to go organic. Nir doesn't think he is changing the world in a major way but is happy to be doing his small part.
Hezi Antignus, head of plant virology research for the Ministry of Agriculture, develops alternative applications to reduce the insects that munch on plants and flowers. Applications to reduce pest problems are becoming very popular in Israel, he says, adding that he has noticed a concern for chemicals on cut flowers bought by some of the larger supermarket chains.
As for flowers purchased in places such as the Carmel Market for NIS 10 a bunch, "Let's just say, in this case, farmers don't care about sprayingâ€¦ " he says.
Based on his personal rather than professional opinion, Wolfson says there are some inherent problems in growing ornamental crops in Israel. He thinks an organic flower market would only appeal to people with a high awareness of ecological concerns. "This will take some time," he says.
Yaacov Gottlieb, who heads the plants division at the Agriculture Ministry's Extension Service, deals with pesticides used in Israeli flower fields. Pesticides can include insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides; they come in many different classes, with very different structures, mechanisms of action and levels of toxicity.
According to Gottlieb, the commercial products Tracer, Vertimek and Proclaim are three of the most widely used pesticides in Israel and are considered "not very poisonous." In the local market, Gottlieb works one on one with flower farmers and says there are no limits to how much pesticide a farmer can use. Foreign standards on organic flowers, especially those being drawn up by countries belonging to the EU, are "not very serious" at this stage, he says.
"Farmers have to spray and spray and spray," he says, as European customers are picky and will not tolerate a single white fly egg on the flowers. Although Europeans will send back products that exceed the allowable limits of pesticide residue, this is in practice with edible produce and not with cut flowers.
As for farmers being properly equipped and informed about the chemicals being used in the industry, Gottlieb confirms that there are product warning sheets, seminars on use and, in some cases, licenses given for the use of certain chemicals like Temik, a poison that affects the nervous system of insects and, if not handled correctly, can also affect the human nervous system. Gottlieb believes that if Israel sets its mind to it, the country could lead new initiatives for future organic flower markets.
Raya, a florist who runs a store close to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, says that even though she has been handling cut flowers daily for some 20 years, she has never noticed any unusual side effects or rashes. Allergic to a certain green variety of plants, she is not concerned in the least about pesticide residue left on flowers.
"I can understand the fuss about eating organic food," she says, "But flowers? You don't eat flowers, so why would there be a problem?"