Rice as an Indicator Species

I was reading this Grist article on the arsenic content of rice and found that it had a lot to say beyond just the levels of this toxin in our rice. To me, this article shows the cyclical nature of all our actions in agriculture, and toward the environment in general. To quote the article directly, the new study “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… even rice grown organically is impacted because of what you might call the legacy of the soil.” There is arsenic in the soil because we used pesticides containing arsenic on cotton crops and because we put arsenic in our animal feed. We can see from this Consumer Report chart that on average, rice that we know comes from Asian countries has less arsenic per serving than rice that comes from the US. This is evidence that the history of cotton growing (and therefore heavy pesticide use) in the southern states has increased the arsenic levels in the rice grown there. As the article points out, the arsenic-based pesticides are mostly used to kill a weed that has developed a resistance to the pesticide Roundup, which is ubiquitous because of genetically modified “Roundup Ready” cotton, among other crops. These products didn’t seem harmful at the time, but now we see that they have long term consequences on the land that will sustain future generations. These products have effects beyond the present and local environment.

I think the most successful way to farm is to imitate nature, so that everything is a closed loop. In nature, there is an input for every output and a producer for every consumer, so nothing is wasted. When we look at the newly discovered arsenic content of rice and consider its sources, the issue of a toxin in our food quickly becomes an issue of pesticides, pollution, and our entire farming methodology.  Some amphibians, because of their sensitive and permeable skin, are used as “indicator species” of water quality or climate change. To me it seems that rice, which happens to be particularly active in absorbing arsenic, is an indicator species of the wasteful pollution of industrial farms. The rice plant has shown us that the environmental harm caused by industrial farming will come back to hurt us in a direct way. And as this problem of health and sustainability becomes more complicated, so do the solutions. The diagram included in the article recommends some regulatory policy changes in agriculture to decrease the amount of arsenic we are putting in the soil for the future. It also suggests adjustments in our daily diets to help us stay healthy. We can only implement a few of these changes in our own lives, but all of them start with simple awareness.

-Simon

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