A post in the AllergyMenu [1] caught our attention. It purports that arsenic pollution is rampant in the rice we consume.

The obvious question is: Does buying organic rice protect you?

TheAllergyMenu claims that organic farming does, quoting them:

“…Foods grown organically are your best choice since the land is certified to not have arsenic compounds applied for at least 3 years prior to becoming an organic farm…”

Mmm… Three years without arsenic compounds (mostly your regular fertilizer) applied to the land. Is that enough to guarantee a significantly lower arsenic level in the soil?

Oryza sativa, commonly known as Asian rice (Wikipedia Commons From Franz Eugen Köhler

An article published in Slate magazine [2] is not so sure. The author , James McWilliams, is a history professor who writes about issues in organic food. That’s OK, I am trained as an physicist/engineer, but I have been writing about health and medical issues for years… His point is that heavy metal pollution can comes to the soil by other means than commercial fertilizers:

“…Organic fertilizers used by farmers to supplement conventional systems—composted animal manure, rock phosphates, fish emulsions, guano, wood ashes, further contaminate topsoil with varying concentrations of heavy metals…”

Actually, the question is now a matter of numbers, and this where McWilliams’ article is vague. And he shies away from claiming that organic fertilizers pollute more than synthetic ones in general,  just saying that, is not a given, and organic farmers should test their soils and follow practices that ensure that organic fertilizers have the edge over synthetic ones. In addition, McWilliams brings soil pollution through atmospheric transport and deposition. Here again we need more numbers.

The Slate Magazine lives up to its contrarian reputation!

In the meantime, orthodox environmentalist thinking still put organic farming way ahead of conventional in pollution avoidance and control. For example  the “Rice Knowledge Management Portal” (RKMP) from India[3] embraces organic farming as the answer to heavy metal pollution.

Keep in mind that rice is cultivated in semi flooded fields, which might explain the higher arsenic risk in rice.

Is the arsenic bio availability from synthetic fertilizer less than the 3 years of pesticide free soil the organic charter guarantees? The ATSDR agency[3] says

“At 20% water content, half-lives of MSMA [ an Arsenic compound] of  178 days were reported”

So, maybe…

More research is needed. That could contain the key to some of  value of organic farming, particularly rice.


  1. TheAllergyMenu ; “Why is there Arsenic in Rice anyway?” ; Sep 2012

  2. slate ;”Is organic agriculture polluting our food with heavy metals?” ; Sep 2008

  3. ATSDR ; “Potential for Human exposure of Arsenic”

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