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Agriculture and Arsenic: Is Any Food Safe Anymore?

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Consumer Reports recently made an unsettling discovery regarding high levels of arsenic found in brown rice grown and manufactured in the United States. Using urine analysis tests, Consumer Reports found a 44% increase in arsenic content in their subjects after eating just one cup of rice. The commercial rice industry responded to the study reminding worried consumers that arsenic is an organic compound (number 33 on the periodic table to be exact) naturally found in water and soil. But others see it as more evidence of industrialized farming methods turning  ecosystems and farmlands into toxic wastelands producing poison food.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer identifies arsenic as a group 1 carcinogen, meaning it is a substance that is very conducive to promoting cancerous growths. Arsenic is in the same class as substances like asbestos and formaldehyde. While eating a cup of brown rice is not equivalent to being in a room blasted with mustard gas (another group 1 carcinogen), scientists and health officials found the amount of arsenic in brown rice alarming and urge consumers to limit their exposure to group 1 carcinogens as much as possible.

How did brown rice become so contaminated? One reason is its habitat; rice is grown in marshy fields, soaked in water containing naturally-occurring organic arsenic that the rice industry is referring to. However the intersection between rice farmers and industrialized chicken farming introduces the highest amount of inorganic arsenic to commercially-grown rice. Farmers use arsenic-rich feed to give chicken meat its pink color (which is apparently a selling point to the consumer) and then sell the chicken litter to other farmers to use as fertilizer. And chicken litter makes an ideal fertilizer for rice farmers: it’s cheap, readily available, and conducive to bountiful harvests of rice. Not to mention large-scale industrialized poultry and rice farming are concentrated in the same geographic regions. And if these poultry farms are close to bodies of water (a handful of southern states feature rivers, deltas, and peninsulas), arsenic easily transfers from soil to water. Well water in various states  throughout the South have routinely tested five to ten times higher than the EPA’s established limit of acceptable inorganic arsenic content for drinking water.

History and production also come into play. Rice-growing regions in the American south were previously used for cotton where arsenic pesticides were used for decades to control boll weevil infestations. Now that those same cotton fields are used to grow food, the crops are tainted by residual pesticide residue. Brown rice’s production lends itself to higher levels of arsenic too. Unlike its less-nutritious relative white rice, where the bran and germ layers are removed, brown rice only has the husk taken away before being shipped to consumers. More layers means more contact with arsenic-laced soil.

Lovers of brown rice should restrict their consumption to a half cup per week to reduce their arsenic exposure. Children should only get a little more than one serving of rice per week. Nursing mothers should be wary of infant formula, many of which feature rice as a staple ingredient. And while the FDA is urging agricultural corporations to limit their reliance on arsenic-based feeds and fertilizers, consumers should exercise caution until a federal limit for arsenic is established for food the same way it has been established for drinking water.

Source: “Arsenic in Your Food.” Consumer Reports (2012): n. page. Web. November 2012.

Photo: sweetbeetandgreenbean/Flickr

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