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There’s arsenic in your rice — and here’s how it got there

Sep 24, 2012

Rice. It’s just one of the basics, right? Whether eaten on its own, or in products like pastas or cereal, this inexpensive and healthy food is a staple for Asian and Latino communities, as well as the growing number of people looking to avoid gluten.

Here’s the bad news, The food most of us think we have more or less locked down is shockingly high in arsenic. And arsenic, especially the inorganic form often found in rice, is a known carcinogen linked to several types of cancer, and believed to interfere with fetal development.

According to new research by the Consumers Union, which took over 200 samples of both organic and conventionally grown rice and rice products, nearly all the samples contained some level of arsenic, and a great deal of them contained enough to cause alarm. While there is no federal standard for arsenic in food, according to the Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, one serving of rice may have as much inorganic arsenic as an entire day’s worth of water. (They’ve also created a useful chart of various rice products, rice brands, and their arsenic levels.) Rice often readily absorbs arsenic from soil where chemical-heavy cotton once grew.

How does rice compare to other grains like wheat and oats? It turns out it’s much higher because of two main factors: How and where rice is grown. The November issue of Consumer Reports, released today, breaks down both phenomena. First, the how:

Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains.

Then, the where:

In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15 percent of rice acreage was in California, 49 percent in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle.

Not a big rice eater? Well, I’d argue this study matters for other reasons too; it illustrates what a long shadow industrial farming practices can cast over the entire food system — and the way some chemicals can cycle through our food and water, for literally generations. You see, in some areas, even rice grown organically is impacted because of what you might call the legacy of the soil.

For decades, farmers used lead-arsenate insecticides to control pests. As the name implies, these were extra dangerous because of their lead content and they were banned in the 1980s, but much of the arsenic that was left behind still remains in the soil. As Consumer Reports mentioned above, the worst offenders were cotton farms in the South, which relied heavily on these heavy-metal-containing chemicals. (Cotton farming, generally, is known to be some of the most “chemically dependent” farming on Earth.)

Retrieved from Grist.


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