Sunday, June 26, 2022

"Poison Rice": Blame Bad Guys, Not the System

Heavy metal-contaminated rice has been turning up in China's market for decades. Officials blame bad actors rather than the system that shovels loans to trusted government-run companies with no market discipline, little oversight, and with protection from nosy journalists--except when it suits authorities' interests to unleash the reporters. 

This month a husband-wife team was found guilty of selling "poison rice" by a court in the Guangdong Province city of Yangjiang. The couple named Zhu and Yan was sentenced to 15 and 10 years in prison, respectively, and ordered to pay 87 million yuan in penalties. According to news media, over the course of 8 months in 2019 Zhu and Yan purchased 5,884 metric tons of rice with excessive levels of cadmium from a granary in Hunan Province operated by the national grain reserve. Their contract specified that the rice had to be used as animal feed and could not enter the market for human food, but Zhu and Yan were accused of knowingly packaging the rice for sale in shops around Yangchun City, a county-level city in southwestern Guangdong Province.

Cadmium-tainted rice came to the Chinese public's attention in 2009 when Guangzhou news media revealed that the Shenzhen City Grain Group had purchased 13,584 metric tons of rice contaminated with cadmium that ended up in Guangzhou retail markets. 

Cadmium is a heavy metal that is not easily processed or eliminated from the human body, and can cause kidney disease, brittle bones, and painful disease after long-term exposure.

In 2013--four years after the first scandal--Guangzhou news media reported that the local food and drug administration found 44.4% of rice samples collected in the local market exceeded the maximum tolerance for cadmium. A reporter said he collected his own samples from the largest local wholesale market and submitted them for testing which revealed that 11 brands of rice had excessive heavy metal contamination.

In 2020, Science and Technology Daily reported cadmium-tainted "poison rice" was discovered in Zhaotong City in Yunnan Province. The contaminated rice was said to have been supplied by 7 rice milling companies in Hunan Province's Yiyang City. The article listed a series of cadmium-contamination incidents going back as far as 1987.

Science and Technology Daily listed poisonous rice incidents in various provinces.

The cadmium contamination was attributed to accumulation of cadmium in the soil resulting from use of phosphate fertilizers and runoff into waterways from non-ferrous metal smelting operations along the banks of rivers in rice-producing provinces of Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi. (Couldn't be related to those cadmium batteries that are in every piece of electronic equipment? Nah.) Most of the cadmium-tainted rice was supplied by Hunan--one of China's top two rice-producing provinces. Guangdong--a highly industrialized province with little farmland--relies on neighboring Hunan to fill its rice deficit. 

In 2013, China released a national soil survey that found 19 percent of farmland had excessive contamination with pollutants. Cadmium was the leading contaminant. The soil survey had begun in 2006 and completed in 2010, but results were withheld for 3 years. Another soil survey began in 2022 but results will not be reported until 2025.

In 2014, a rice breeder recommended planting super rice varieties that could absorb the cadmium from the soil and supply rice to make biofuel. The rice breeder making the proposal estimated that 12 million tons of contaminated grain is produced each year.

In 2017, the World Bank loaned China $100 million to clean up polluted farmland in Hunan Province. The Hunan Provincial government was expected to kick in an extra $11 million. The project was scheduled to run through 2023.

The same year, Hunan Province issued a long document on a soil remediation program that included 3 sentences on cadmium contamination of rice with vague plans to choose unspecified technologies to address the problem. The program promised to ban metal-working facilities on riverbanks and clean up contamination from cadmium and lead-acid batteries. 

This month's news about conviction of the two rogue rice-dealers in Guangdong reflects Chinese leaders' standard strategy of blaming problems on evil bad actors--while exonerating the system itself. Recent news articles fail to show much interest in the culpability of state-owned grain trading companies tasked with supplying food to China's richest cities--Shenzhen and Guangzhou--as well as government reserve warehouses in rice-growing areas. 

A Chinese scientist who has advocated cleanup of soil for decades told Sci-Tech Daily the persistence of "poison rice" is partly due to the "monopoly" of soil-testing data by "experts" in local areas with a vested interest in grain sales who falsify reports and then inflate their estimates of costs to remediate the problem. The scientist said local governments focus their attention on prominent image projects that advance their careers like huge metal-working factories and mines. An example he gave was "construction of high-yielding fields" that can bring in funding of 10 million yuan or about 1000 yuan per mu ($18,750 per hectare) to build vast fields, roads, irrigation ditches, pumps, and other shiny infrastructure. Soil-remediation programs cost 20,000-60,000 yuan per mu and have fewer photo-ops for herds of officials. 

Interestingly, news media in Guangzhou seem to have been the driving force in publicizing the rice contamination problem over the years. While journalists may have done some digging to expose the problem, the news could not have been released without the OK of Guangdong Provincial authorities. Thus, the cadmium rice issue is in large part a behind-the-scenes battle between the interests of officials in Guangdong--who have an interest in protecting their consumers--versus the interests of neighboring Hunan authorities in protecting their farmers and rice mills. 

Poison rice invades Guangdong. Source: Shanghai Oriental TV