Chinese consumers must reject polluted food

Chemicals and hormones entering the food chain can have disastrous consequences for human health. It's time to take a stand on food contamination, writes Jiang Gaoming.


On a recent trip to a chicken farm, I found that in the six months since I last visited, the farm’s guard dog had put on weight and become lethargic. He was more friendly than ferocious. As it turned out, the farm owner had tried to save trouble by feeding chicken fodder to his dog. The German Shepherd had lost interest in his previous diet of leftover meals, and this was the result.

The chicken feed comes from a well-known local company, and is priced at 140 yuan (around US$20) a bag. It contains a mix of hormones, trace elements and animal proteins. This diet can fatten a newly hatched chick into a plump five-kilogram chicken in 41 to 45 days, while grain-fed birds take around 150 days to reach three kilograms. The same time-saving, rapid-growth fodder has been used by farmers raising pigs – feed additives mean pigs can be raised in four months, rather than the usual 12 – as well as ducks, geese, fish, shrimp, crabs, eels and turtles. Some are even raising cows on this chicken feed.

If the feed could change a dog’s temperament, it is unlikely to be doing us any good either, when it enters the human food chain. China’s markets and supermarkets are filled with this “rapid-growth food”: meat, eggs and seafood; fruit and vegetables grown out of season; grain cultivated with fertilisers and pesticides. There is no other choice on our shelves.

Numerous food additives are already in use. Borax, a compound initially used in the chemical industry for the production of ceramics, optical fibre, cosmetics and fertiliser, is now used as a food additive in China. An investigation following a food-poisoning incident in south China’s Guangxi province found of the 13 types of food tested, 12 contained borax. The compound was also the cause of a mass food poisoning incident at a middle school.

Plump, succulent watermelons; tempting red tomatoes; golden yellow pears: who knows what harmful substances may lurk within? Both Jinan and Xi’an have reported three and four-year-old boys growing beards and young girls growing breasts due to their additive-filled diets. Fruit-growers use over a dozen different hormones to speed up the ripening process, increase fruit size and affect colouring. Hormones increase harvests, and for the farmers it seems ridiculous not to use them. Even I got excited about the possibilities 25 years ago, when I was teaching a course on plant biology. But problems arising from these developments have caused a necessary rethink.

Other substances that make their way into our foods include trace elements, which are mostly heavy metals, brightening agents, preservatives and artificial colourings – not to mention the potential risks of genetically-modified foods. Technology is taking over the food production industry: the industry with the greatest impact on our health. We have struggled for a long time to make sure we have adequate shelter and nutrition, but some of the advances we made along the way come with a huge price tag. In terms of humanity’s survival, they may even be a step backwards.

The use of feed additives can reduce disease among livestock, promote growth and allow more intensive farming. But the dangers to human health and the environment are becoming ever more apparent. A particular additive that promotes the growth of lean meat in pigs, in humans causes heart palpitations, high blood pressure, muscle tremors, headaches, nausea and anxiety – and in the most serious cases, convulsions and blackouts. Pork contaminated with just 2.8 milligrams per kilogram caused a cluster of 31 poisoning cases in Guangdong in April, 2002.

Our overheated economy has brought massive ecological damage to China. Nobody can deny that the cities lack clean air, while the countryside lacks clean water. Now the problem is spreading to our food. Urban residents, who make up 30% of the population, may yet pay the price of polluted food (those in rural areas tend to keep the safe food for themselves). Modern agriculture uses fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, additives and hormones with abandon; crops are farmed out of season and genetically-modified organisms are used to increase growth, while quality drops. No one is willing to pay premium prices for high quality food, so no one produces any.

While our food may be cheap, however, we could end up spending more treating the health problems it raises. The same is true in developed countries. The US has no problem with the size of its harvests, but declining quality has caused genuine concern. Arsenic has been found in chickens on sale in US supermarkets. Obesity is widespread, meaning profits to companies selling weight-loss drugs; companies that are now planning an assault on the Chinese market.

One of the major factors behind the hidden dangers in our food is a quest for profit. Farmers can buy any of these feed additives, hormones and drugs appearing on the market. Therefore, manufacturers are even known to use industrial materials to reduce costs and grab market share. The emphasis is on keeping costs down, and there is no way to eradicate the risks. Nor does legislation seem able to keep up with the challenge of increasingly intensive agriculture.

Solving food safety issues means looking at the market. If urban consumers refuse food that contains hormones and additives, if they stop buying genetically modified or out-of-season food, sales will drop. Differential pricing for products of different quality will mean consumer feedback, which can encourage farmers to produce safer food. Solving the root of the problem means society rejecting this dangerous “rapid-growth food”. The government must strengthen oversight of food safety, and allow the people to eat without fear.




Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.




Homepage photo by Philippe Semanaz