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If America Only Knew How Much Arsenic Ends Up on the Average Dinner Plate

Our government is perversely protecting the industries that release the killer chemical into society.

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Weeds commonly evolve resistance to ALS inhibitors, much more so than for any other class of herbicides. But resistance to glyphosate was almost unheard of before Monsanto first introduced its Roundup Ready genetically engineered crops to the market in 1996. Glyphosate use shot up, giving weeds the evolutionary force needed to develop resistance. Nowhere was this truer than on fields that rotated between two Roundup Ready crops, soybeans and cotton.

Glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth first turned up in GE soybeans and cotton in Georgia in 2005 and before long it was documented across the U.S. including in the rice-growing states of Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, and California. In some case, resistance to both types of herbicides was found in the same Palmer amaranth plant. The weed has caused growers to turn to more toxic herbicides, hand-weeding, and even entirely abandoning their fields.

One last direct outlet for arsenic into agricultural lands comes from sewage sludge. Under current EPA regulations, sewage sludge containing 41 parts per million – 41,000 parts per billion – total arsenic can be applied to agricultural land and even sold to consumers for home garden and lawn use. (Full disclosure: I recently worked on the Center for Media & Democracy’s sewage sludge campaign, which opposed the use of sewage sludge in agriculture.) Under existing law, farmers can apply sewage sludge containing up to 41 kilograms of arsenic per hectare of land.

As you can see, between them, the USDA, FDA and EPA have allowed pesticides, pharmaceuticals and practices that led to the toxic load of arsenic Consumers Union found in rice. The EPA regulated pesticides, the FDA regulated drugs, and the USDA worked with farmers in many aspects of agriculture and gave the green light to Roundup Ready crops. It was no secret that arsenic was going into farms and fields where our food is grown, and yet the question of where the arsenic went was mostly ignored. The FDA recently released its own tests, confirming Consumers’ Union’s findings. As their data shows, even organic rice contains arsenic. (Organic farmers cannot use arsenical pesticides, but they can use manure from chickens fed roxarsone and other arsenical drugs.)

So is the government to blame for this massive oversight and public health risk? Michael Hansen doesn’t think so. “The issue in the larger context isn't so much that it's bad government,” he says. “If you put it in the proper context, it's not only the gutting of the regulatory agency but also the control by industry and outside forces. I think there are definitely people within the agency who would like to take action on a number of things but they can't because of the reaction by industry… The power of industry is so strong, you can't expect the government to take action when they are trashed left and right.”

Consumers Union recently sent and published three letters, one to the EPA, one to the FDA and one to the USDA, asking them to rectify all of the problems named in this article so that no more arsenic finds its way into U.S. farms and so that standards are set for how much arsenic is allowed into our food supply. They also commend Congress for introducing the R.I.C.E. Act (Reducing Food-Based Inorganic and Organic Compounds Exposure Act) and they advocate its speedy passage (which is not likely in the current politically charged environment).

When citizens reflect on the size of their government, surely most would agree that it ought to be “big” enough to keep arsenic out of the food supply. But the comedy of errors between three different agencies that allowed so much arsenic onto our farms and then our dinner tables is exactly the sort of disaster that causes voters to throw up their hands and wish the government would go away altogether. Yet, if Hansen is correct, the incompetence shown in this case was not a matter of bureaucratic ineptness but one of industry’s capture over the agencies charged with regulating it. Voters going to the polls need to recognize the problem. Instead of voting for candidates who vow to get government out of our lives we should be voting for leaders willing to take a stand against undue corporate influence.

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