Food Pollution in Asia: A Serial Killer on the Loose!

July 30, 2019

Food Pollution in Asia: A Serial Killer on the Loose!

Over the years with dead bodies piling up, food pollution seems to be getting the attention it deserved in Asia, home of 60% of the world's population 4.58 billion people in total - and rising. Still, it’s an uphill climb. In a world where millions live below the poverty line, getting 3 square meals in a day is anything but a walk in the park.  Small wonder why food quality is, more often than not, set aside. Not surprisingly, such pressing circumstances makes one thing obvious: The dangers of contaminated food in the developed nations of the West pale in comparison to those in developing countries of Asia.

 And as pundits would have it, governments play a huge role in such a dire outcome. Oft-times, a family’s food security plays second fiddle to a country’s economic agenda. In what is becoming more and more apparent, the push towards greater national prosperity is taking a toll on poorer individuals who can’t afford the luxury of better food. For the most part, these people suffer in silence even when dead bodies start piling up.

Arguably, none of these food-borne sufferings are more pronounced than in China and India,  two of Asia’s most populous nations. It’s true. These two giant neighbors are leading the pack as the biggest economies from Asia as their greater economic prosperity has translated into better global standing. But along with all the economic rise, food woes are also growing - making obvious the great disparity between those who have and those who have not. The causes could be more direct as in lack of proper sanitation or it could be more sinister as in harmful toxins seeping into farmland.

The good news is proponents from Japan, another economic powerhouse in the region, along with a host of food technologists are looking into better ways food can be had. To each and every family on the planet. Perhaps a timely redemption for man’s ingenuity during such an hour of need. 

WHO Reports: Dead Asian Bodies Piling Up

Gunning for America’s Top Spot

Asia, home of 13th century Genghis Khan - arguably the greatest conqueror of all time, has always been playing catch-up to the West in terms of overall quality of living. While technology, in the likes of the iPhone and the seemingly all-encompassing Android smartphones, has definitely trickled down to the masses, it’s still a hand-me-down concept from America and the rest of Western society.

And this trend is never more apparent in the scale of economies in the global stage. America with its economy in superscale is still the gold standard. The model by which everyone is compared to.

It is perhaps, this case of wanting to be at par with the West in terms of economic prowess, and even militarily, that various driving forces in the national level can be gleaned upon more thoroughly.

 

Bringing about Jaw-dropping Statistics

But ever so often, such a drive can only make food quality hang in the balance. No numbers tell a better story than dead bodies piling up.

WHO (World Health Organization) in its first-ever report on food-borne diseases detail that:

  • 175,000 people die in South-East Asia every year
  • 3 out of 10 children under 5 suffer diarrhea in the region per year
  • Over 150 million get sick due to polluted food per year

The UN agency report further stipulates that it is the low and middle-income homes that are worse affected by food-borne diseases. Not surprisingly, the majority of deaths due to typhoid fever and hepatitis A come from the region. 

Of the various food-borne diseases found in Asia, diarrheal infection is the most prominent claiming more lives than any.

Not only does contaminated food prey on the poorest, it also hangs a huge problem for the weakest: the children. Statistics show a very grim picture for the young ones. WHO’s survey indicate over:

  • 55 million children under the age of 5 falls ill to food-borne diarrhea with
  • 32,000 deaths attributed to it every year

How Food Pollution Devours Asia

Tracking a Methodical Killer

Of course, food pollution as a cause of death is never an accident. A series of events along with a whole play of forces, both macro and micro, have contributed to worsening quality of meals taken in this side of the world. What is disheartening is that it’s those that have less that are becoming fast targets, virtual sitting ducks so to speak.

In its simplest form, food pollution is defined as the presence of something harmful or toxic in food. Such harmful elements could be in the form of toxic chemicals or that of a biological contaminant. In short, the following make food contaminated:

  • Harmful bacteria
  • Harmful parasites
  • Harmful viruses
  • Toxins
  • Harmful chemicals

The effects of ingesting polluted food largely depend on the level of contamination. Short-term effects could include:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

However, many times toxic food doesn’t manifest right away. Instead, it has long-term implications that are far more serious. Some of these are:

  • Brain disorder
  • Neural disorder
  • Cancer
  • Kidney failure

Taking on the Disadvantaged Poor

As indicated in the WHO report, food-borne illnesses are most prevalent in low and middle-income abodes. That is because the more marginalized a sector is the lesser the chances of having secured homes. Many are in fact homeless, living in shanties that are moved from time to time as informal settlements.

India for one has 1.8 million homeless people, a United Nations survey indicated. Such a large number of homeless people is echoed in other parts of Asia:

  • India: 73 million lack access to decent housing
  • Indonesia: 3 million homeless with many displaced by natural disasters
  • Pakistan: 20 million people without adequate housing

Such comfort-challenged dwellings become fertile grounds for food contamination. Why? Simply because of the lack of hygiene and proper sanitation. Worse, many of these poverty-stricken pseudo-homes lack adequate food production and ample storage for food.

Small wonder why diarrheal diseases plague these Asians, claiming more lives than any food-borne disease in the process.

But poverty, though a long-time agony for millions in Asia, isn’t just the only culprit painting the picture ugly. Governments and their drive for economic dominance have a lot of explaining to do, something that is nowhere as prominent as the biggest country in the world in terms of population: China.

 

Industrialization vs Food Contamination

If there’s an Asian nation that’s being constantly mentioned in the global stage, it has to be Chian. You can hardly eat any knick-knacks in the U.S. without encountering the words “Made in China” written all over it.

That’s because China is taking on a never-before-seen presence in the world stage. Today, it is topped by none when it comes to exports and trade, exporting $479.97 billion worth of goods to the American mainland in 2018. China is in fact, America’s biggest trading partner, with Chinese imports amounting to 19.2% of total goods.

With all that movement of goods comes wealth. And today, China is one big market with unprecedented economic growth surpassing every other nation in the world. Factor its sheer size (nearing 1.4 billion people) and its growing middle class, and you have a country with unrivaled buying power.

It’s no surprise, China has been dubbed the next superpower, at par with the U.S.

However, all that globalization is costing China. And unfortunately, food pollution is right at the center of it.

Soil pollution, for one, is causing alarm in China’s agricultural heartland. A concrete example is the fields of Ge Songqing, a major source of Chinese staples, from rice to carrots to sweet potatoes. Along with various fruits and vegetables.

Why? Simply because Ge Songqing is also a key industrial district. Though many crop-yielding fields are cultivated, factories surround these areas. The result: irrigation comes steep with water tainted with industrial waste. It’s such a bleak situation that experts believe levels of toxic heavy metals present in the wastewater are one of the highest in all of China.

With all that ever-present, villagers fear the soil on which their crops are growing is contaminated, making their produce contaminated as well. Now, fear strikes right into their very backbones, made worse by a spate of cancer deaths in the area.

Villagers worry about toxic chemicals such as lead are running in their young children’s blood. Still, they don’t take up medical check-ups resigned to whatever fate awaits them in the future.

 

Soil & Water Pollution in China: Grim Statistics

All the concern may not be unfounded, however. Official findings from the government, the Vice Minister of Land and Resources no less, namely Wang Shiuyan, confirm:

  • 8 million acres of farmland in China is polluted
  • Planting crops in these areas should be banned altogether

For the uninitiated, 8 million acres is as big as the state of Maryland in the U.S. The report has set off a wave of fear. For years, however, the government give some acknowledgment but no comprehensive system has been in place to check soil pollution.

In a knee-jerk reaction hearing all the bad news regarding food pollution, Guangdong Province officials went out of their way checking 155 batches of rice from various sectors - from restaurants to storehouses. Tests were administered at random. What they learned only confirmed further their fears. Their tests found:

  • Toxic Cadmium at excessive levels in all the batches.
  • 89 of these batches came from Hunan Province, fields of Ge Songqing including

But a book published by the Ministry of Environmental Protection only further opened the floodgates for a nationwide scare. Entitled “Soil Pollution and Physical Health”, the book claimed that:

  • 50 million acres or 1/6th of China’s arable land suffers from food pollution
  • 13 million tons of crop each year is contaminated with heavy metals
  • 22 million acres of farmland is adversely affected by pesticides

However, the details of the oft-cited pollution have been hidden by the government leaving farmers in the dark. Though the soil survey has been accomplished way back in 2010, its full details is locked away, branded as “state secret”.

At the heart of the problem is Hunan Province. So-Called China’s rice bowl, Hunan accounts for roughly 17 million tons of rice yearly, a number amounting to about 16 percent of the whole nation’s total consumption of rice.

But, Hunan is also one of the nation’s largest source of nonferrous metals. No wonder Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs has branded the province as the leading polluter when it comes to:

  • Lead
  • Cadmium
  • Non-metal arsenic

The numbers are jaw-dropping. A study showed Hunan accounts for no less than 41 percent of China’s cadmium pollution as industrial wastewater showed.

Such wastewater from industries gets discharged into the nation’s rivers, water flowing in which goes to irrigation channels feeding crops in the process.

China’s government is caught in a tug of war between feeding the nation and growing the economy. To note, cadmium as a toxic chemical in high doses causes:

  • Weakened bones
  • Cancer
  • Eventual organ failure

Though data detailing the amount of damage food pollution is causing China, some scientists have conducted key studies. One such study was published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Pollution. In it, the details of how the pollution coming from the Huai River, a long body of water that crosses several provinces in the heart of China, is directly connected to the higher-than-normal rates of cancer for people living near the river.

 

Air Pollution at Its Worst

Then, there is a case for air pollution in Asia. Already, international scientists are pushing for 25 solutions to get better air for the world’s most peopled continent via a report by the United Nations Environment.

Air pollution is so bad in key Asian cities that it has resulted in:

  • 5 to 10 million asthma-related ER visits

More significantly hit is South East Asia when it comes to air pollution-related asthma visits. Key pollutants, like those in the West, include:

  • NOx and
  • SO2
  • Ozone (O3)

While air pollution has covered most, if not all, key Asian cities with smog, it’s also giving crops a hard time. Ozone and NOx have been especially harmful to crops from the Philippines to India. Nitrogen oxides in the air, are notorious in transforming into secondary pollutants (e.g., nitrates, ammonium) which can be brought to Earth by the rains. Or as the case may be snow.

The whole process can bring about nitrogen decomposition which causes:

  • Soil acidification
  • Breeding algal blooms

Algal blooms create killer spaces in rivers where nothing, not even water lilies, can grow. Already, plants in China have shown an increasing amount of nitrogen content. These crops include rice, maize, and wheat.

In India, ozone (O3) has had a significant negative effect on crop growth, stunting growth as the chemical is “directly toxic” to plants. This has been a perennial problem in the Indo-Gangetic Plains, India’s breadbasket.

 

A Silver Lining in the Cloud of Confusion

As food pollution continue to hound Asians, the good news is technology has risen to answer to man’s growing needs for the region. Crops, for one, have been highly dependent on external factors which include mainly:

  • Unpredictable weather
  • Environmental pollution
  • Harmful pests

Nourishing Asia, home to the more people in the world than any, is a gargantuan task. And that can start with doing away with polluted food.

Luckily, one solution seems to fit the bill: growing plants, crops, fruits, and veggies, in a controlled environment.  That alternative has been explored in Japan, specifically by Ozu Corporation in Tokyo. Their plan involved growing vegetables inside specially-designed factories which takes away various extraneous harmful factors aforementioned.

Even better, constant monitoring of the plant’s growth via computers makes the process more viable.

Over time, such a remarkable process has been brought to perfection in hydroponics, a science of growing that introduce nutrients directly in liquid form to plants throwing away the traditional method of soil cultivation.

Recently, one particular product has caught many a pundit's attention: the portable Aspara smart hydroponic grower, a globally-awarded innovation which has made the cultivation of superior fruits and veggies in a controlled environment available for everyone. This product is a home buddy’s dream come true as growing greens has never been easier - with an app right from the onset and programmable LED lights doing your bidding.

Technology, it would seem, is the answer to man’s food pollution woes. If only, man learns to adapt sooner., rather than later, he may conquer more worlds before him. And not go the way of the dinosaur.

 

Sources:

  1. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/food-contamination-kills-175000-people-in-south-east-asia-each-year/articleshow/50042719.cms?from=mdr&utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
  2. https://homelessworldcup.org/homelessness-statistics/
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/31/world/asia/good-earth-no-more-soil-pollution-plagues-chinese-countryside.html
  4. https://www.nature.com/news/nitrogen-pollution-soars-in-china-1.12470
  5. https://www.pnas.org/content/111/46/16319
  6. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/american-consumption-habits/


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