Where rice may not be so nice


Eric Farrow (left) and Dr. Jianmin Wang take grain samples from rice plants in S&T’s greenhouse. Photos by B.A. Rupert

Eric Farrow wants to make sure the rice that ends up on your plate is toxin-free. Farrow, a Missouri S&T graduate student in environmental engineering, is working with Dr. Jianmin Wang, associate professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, to find ways to reduce the arsenic content in rice.

2011_arsenic-rice-farrow_discover_image2.jpgArsenic is a tasteless and odorless heavy metal that can occur naturally in soils. While small levels of organic arsenic are not considered dangerous, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says exposure to the metal has caused a number of known health problems, including neurodegenerative conditions and cancer.

For decades, arsenic-containing pesticides and defoliants were used in the cotton fields of the south-central United States. Although this type of treatment is no longer in practice, the toxic metal has accumulated in the soil. Now much of this land is used for rice crops, and rice grown in this area may contain elevated levels of arsenic.

“The risk is even greater for people who regularly consume up to four times the amount of rice in the average diet,” says Farrow.

Farrow’s research, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a joint project of S&T and Dr. John Yang at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., Dr. Wengui Yan at the USDA Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center and Dr. Baolin Deng at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“We’re looking at the correlations between the arsenic concentration in the grain and the arsenic availability and mobility in the soil,” Farrow says.

Several varieties of rice are being cultivated in arsenic-contaminated soils at S&T’s greenhouse, located in the Butler-Carlton Civil Engineering Hall on campus. Different applications of phosphates and iron oxides are also used in the soils. Farrow says these compete with arsenic and may help to reduce harmful levels in the rice grain.

From Cape Girardeau, Mo., Farrow earned his bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from S&T in 2010. He says he was drawn to this research project because of a long-time interest in food safety. “We’ve had air and water regulations since the 1970s,” he says. “But there are very few food safety standards.”

Through this research, Farrow hopes to find a place for food safety in the broad field of environmental engineering.

By Linda Fulps

More Missouri S&T research.


  1. Luce Myers says

    I am wondering about the origin of such pesticides as arsenic in our environment. If these are finally banned in the US, are they still being manufactured here or elsewhere and exported and imported globally?
    What influence is our present university science having on these preventions?
    Thank you for your very important work in the field of our food quality! Luce Myers, Missouri S&T

  2. good job ^_^

  3. Patrick Quade says

    Cool stuff, food quality is certainly a very important means of preventative medicine. However, let us all never forget that it is THE DOSE THAT MAKES THE POISON. Arsenic, like they said above, is a naturally occurring chemical in a lot of things, but is often used as a scare tactic for Americans to buy a new product rather than the old. After all, its “RAT POISON!” Most people forget or are unaware that elderly people ingest arsenic everyday as a blood thinner, and cancer patients take it very frequently for a variety of reasons.
    None of that is to say that Farrow’s work isn’t important or justified, but we should always keep in mind the benefits of Arsenic when we judge the harmful aspects.