Like Rice? Enjoy your Arsenic. By
So there’s this grove of trees in Utah. They’re called “quaking aspen” and in the fall they turn this beautiful, golden color. The grove is called Pando. Here’s the thing – they make little aspens by expanding their root systems. A little shoot will run off from a big tree, head skyward, and in a few years you have what looks like a new tree. It’s known as “clonal propogation.”
What this means, is that this grove of trees, a spread of around 47,000 trees covering over 106 acres is one great big organism. All of the trees are a genetic clone of a single aspen, and they are all connected as one through this massive root system. But here’s the truly curious thing:
While the average age of a tree in Pando is around 160 years old (a pretty good age for a tree), the whole system is estimated to be around 80,000 years old, making it not only the largest known organism but the oldest. When there is a fire and everything above ground burns to bits, the roots stay alive. Glacial ice age covers the forest? Roots stay alive. These trees have been quaking in Utah since before human beings arrived on this continent.
Let that soak in for a minute.
Now, you may ask, what the heck does this have to do with food? Well, nothing really, but it does have to do with what we stick in the ground. You see, Pando has seen a lot of crazy stuff come and go. Those roots have been hanging around in the soil for quite a long time. Kind of like the stuff that we put in the soil.
For years, many areas of the South were perfect for growing cotton. And for years, we grew a lot of it. The only problem is that there is a little critter, called a boll weevil, that also likes to eat cotton, and kills it pretty readily. So for generations and generations we sprayed our cotton with arsenic-based chemicals, because the little weevils didn’t really go for that. We also used arsenic when we fed our chickens. We still do, as a matter of fact. It makes the chicken grow faster on less feed, fights disease, and makes the chicken meat an appetizing pink color. Irony being what it is, one of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning is weight loss, but whatever.
Here’s where it comes around full circle. We use chicken manure to fertilize rice fields that are being planted on former cotton fields. Consumer Reports tested 200 samples of commercially available rice, and guess what they found? Arsenic. Go figure, right?
When Consumer Reports did their testing, they found that the type of arsenic found in these rice samples was the kind that causes cancer and disease, and in some cases the levels were high enough to cause alarm. The Food & Drug Administration decided to test 1,000 samples and said, “Based on a preliminary review of FDA’s testing of approximately 200 initial samples of rice and rice products, we find that the results from Consumer Reports appear to be consistent with those we are reporting based on our initial testing.” So what does the FDA suggest that we do? “Based on the available data and scientific literature the FDA is not recommending changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products.”
Wow. Just wow. It’s like someone saying that sticking your foot into an icy pond shows the water to be too cold for swimming. The FDA sticks its foot in, declares the pond to be too cold to safely swim, and then hands us some swim trunks. “Dive in.”
It would seem that we would learn. After all, Pfizer volunteered to pull Roxarsone, an arsenic-based poultry drug, based on concern about what it was doing to our chickens. And Maryland is passing legislation that would ban all arsenic in chicken feed. And Maryland grows a lot of chickens. But they aren’t the only state that grows chickens, and there are a host of other arsenic products out there for chicken growers (ranchers? farmers?).
And what of our old friend cotton? We wanted to phase out arsenic and dangerous chemicals, so we created a GMO super-seed that was Roundup Ready (ahhhh…Monsanto). No more boll weevils, but we’re now fighting a pesky weed, Palmer pigweed, that can choke out a cotton plant. And the Palmer Pigweed has developed a tolerance to Roundup, like it just don’t care. So now the USDA has approved a nice little chemical to fight the weed: MSMA. That stands for monosodium methanearsonate. You know, arsenic.
Pass the rice.