How half the rice in the Chinese city of Guangzhou was poisoned by pollution

Mmm, cadmium.
Mmm, cadmium.
Image: Getty Images/Emilie Duchesne
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The latest in China’s rolling cascade of food safety disasters comes from Guangzhou—the capital of Guangdong province in southern China, and one of China’s largest cities—where 44% of rice samples were found to contain poisonous levels of cadmium (link in Chinese). That rice was being served to unsuspecting diners in restaurants around Guangzhou (link in Chinese).

Unlike many other Chinese food scandals—rat meat sold as lamb, milk tainted with melamine, dead pigs in the river—the cadmium-laced rice isn’t just the result of unprincipled food providers trying to cut costs. Instead, it’s a reflection of the heavy levels of heavy-metal pollution that can be found throughout China’s farm lands. The country loses $3 billion a year to soil pollution.

While it’s less outrageously stomach-churning than, say, rat meat masquerading as mutton, the “cadmium rice” scandal, as the media has named it, is much harder to fix. Health inspectors can crack down on fake meat. But the soil pollution crisis is the result—and a telling example—of layer upon layer of state planning gone awry. Here’s why.

No ministry is accountable for regulating soil pollution (pdf, p.6), and earlier this year, the State Council pushed back setting up a soil pollution prevention system from 2015 to 2020. That’s despite the fact that between 40% and 70% of China’s soil is already contaminated with heavy metals and fertilizers. That results in toxic levels of lead in a third of China’s rice and high levels of cadmium in another one-tenth of it.

The government categorizes soil pollution levels as a “state secret.” This despite the fact Chinese academics have long been documenting the toxic effects of soil pollution—for example, one Chinese scientist found that the soil in at least half of China’s provinces and administrative zones is severely contaminated. The authorities have declined to publish the results of the first national survey of soil pollution, started in 2006; scholars involved in the project say the government has suppressed the preliminary findings.

It’s not just industrial runoff—it’s farmers, too. In addition to being a major agricultural producer, Hunan, where the rice was grown, is also a major producer of non-ferrous metals—one likely contributor to the high cadmium levels. In the last few years, a rising number of Hunan agricultural products have been found to contain toxic substances (link in Chinese). And despite widespread soil pollution, there aren’t restrictions on planting in polluted soil, say academics. Plus, farmers use a lot of of phosphate-based fertilizers that contain cadmium, which is expensive to remove. One scientist estimates that improper disposal of fertilizer means that farmers leave around 65% of it to pollute soil and water. But the shortage of land and water resources leaves farmers with little choice.

The central government encourages this toxic production because it desperately wants farmers to grow rice. The pressure on farmers to produce comes from the government, which is anxious to keep food supply—and, therefore, prices—stable. Not only does it encourage high output, but it sets a minimum price for rice and other staples. Any time the price dips below that threshold, the government buys up rice from farmers and socks it away in the state rice reserve. And it bumped that up another 10% at the beginning of this year, even though it was already way higher than international market prices.

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Local governments flout regulations with impunity. There so far has been no reaction from the authorities in Hunan, where the rice originated, reports Xinhua (link in Chinese). Meanwhile, the local Guangzhou Food and Drug Administration initially ignored laws (link in Chinese) requiring it to tell the public which brands contained the toxic substances, which companies had sold and distributed it, and what the health risks were. Though it eventually bowed to pressure and named the manufacturers and the brand of the “cadmium rice,” it still hasn’t released details.

The public is getting really ticked off. Unsurprisingly, the Guangzhou FDA’s silence didn’t sit well with the public (link in Chinese). “[The FDA official] says it’s inconvenient to publish information about some issues. Then we have to ask why is it inconvenient? What indeed are the things that are inconvenient?” Zeng Dehong, a member of the local government body, told China National Radio. “The People’s Congress actually require a little accountability here.” (Note that Guangdong province officials are unusually frank compared to those elsewhere in China.)

So what’s the solution? The central government knows it must reassure Chinese households that their food is safe. But that doesn’t help much when its food safety goals are at odds with its policy of making local governments hit economic growth targets. As one Guangdong FDA official told Beijing News, the pressure faced by certain departments to deliver economic development forced them to look the other way on food safety (link in Chinese). The government must figure out how to get them to prioritize food safety and the environment instead of focusing on growth at any cost. Taking officials off the hook for hitting economic targets would be a good start. Otherwise, even a well-intentioned central government won’t be able to protect its people.