Rice cultivation led to the creation of China’s first urban states several thousand years ago – and the staple has been entwined with the country’s history ever since.
So it’s with deep unease that officials and ordinary citizens alike have read reports over the past few days that a growing number of the country’s paddy fields have been contaminated with toxic heavy metals.
The scare adds to China’s poor reputation for food safety, already tarnished by the 2008 scandal over melamine-tainted baby formula. That incident injured 300,000 babies and killed at least six – causing senior officials to promise tighter supervision.
That’s a promise that still has some way to go before it’s fulfilled. As much as a tenth of China’s 200 million tonne rice crop may be polluted with cadmium (an ingredient used in rechargeable batteries), according to a study by academics at the Nanjing Agricultural University. The authors surveyed food markets in six southern provinces between 2007 and 2008 – and found that in the markets surveyed more than 10% of the rice sampled was contaminated, sometimes by over five times the country’s legal limit (for cadmium).
The report received plenty of media attention, after it was first discussed in Caixin magazine last week. “Cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals are discharged with sewage by mining operations and make their way into rice paddies, especially in southern China,” the magazine concluded. “The problem is decades-old, and rice contamination continues today.”
State-owned magazine China Economic Weekly then estimated this week that as much as 12 million tonnes of grain may be contaminated. It warned that mining sludge had created “cancer villages”, and pointed to government figures putting the potential economic cost of the tainted rice at $3 billion annually. “These harmful heavy metals have spread through the air and water, polluting a rather large area of China’s land,” claims the report. That was also the conclusion of a 2002 Ministry of Agriculture study, which found that 28.4% of the surveyed rice was contaminated with lead and 10.3% with cadmium, says the Global Times.
Nearly two thirds of China’s population are regular rice eaters. Cadmium’s harmful effects include soft and brittle bones, irreversible kidney damage and arthritis. The Caixin investigation included discussion of one Guangxi village downstream from a zinc mine, in which “several dozen farmers… have been troubled by a strange weakness of the legs for decades.”
The Global Times says that lax oversight is once again to blame for the problem. “Most of the time [officialdom] blocks information on pollution, leaving farmers unaware of the contamination of their land,” explains the newspaper, “[and] the lack of supervision… leaves the contaminated rice freely in the market.”
The Ministry for Environmental Protection has responded by pushing provincial governments to crack down on offenders. Plans call for heavy metal pollution to be cut 15% from 2007 levels over the next five years.
Government leaders are increasingly concerned about the potential for a public backlash – especially as food prices continue to rise and the winter wheat crop is threatened by drought. “More than 30 major heavy-metal poisoning incidents have occurred since 2009,” Zhou Shengxian, minister for environmental protection, told local media, “posing a grave threat to public health, especially to children.”
Dramatic food-related scandals only add to public fears. This week, for example, 136 kindergarten students were hospitalised with nitrite poisoning in Xi’an. The toddlers fell ill after eating a noodle lunch at the school canteen. Nitrite looks and tastes like salt, but will cause severe headaches and vomiting. Shanghai Daily says police are investigating local salt sellers in the city to find the source of the poison.
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