Itai-itai! Cadmium, Mineral Fertilizers & a Tale of Two Reports

hydrogen sulfide fertilizer spray

“Itai-Itai!” This is Japanese for “it hurts! It hurts!”. It is also the name of a disease that emerged in the early 20th Century in the Toyama area (prefecture) of Japan, due to cadmium poisoning.

Itai-Itai disease” was the name locals gave to their severe spinal and joint pains. Though locals did not know it at the time, cadmium poisoning can also cause softening of the bones and kidney failure.

It came about because of two neighbouring, interconnected practices: mining and rice irrigation.  The cadmium was released into rivers by mountainous mining companies. It and other heavy metals settled on the riverbed floor. So when river water was used to irrigate the paddy fields, the soil, and then the people, were poisoned.

In a classic example of the dictum ‘don’t learn late lessons from early warnings’ the problem emerged as early as 1912, while the compensation payouts only began as late as the 1970s.

From 1980s to 2012 a massive soil replacement programme cleaned the polluted rice paddy fields. Because of this, the cadmium content in rice has been “markedly decreased” according to Keiko Aoshima, director of the Hagino hospital and published author on the topic. His 2016 article in the peer reviewed journal “Soil Science and Plant Nutrition” states that “Cd nephropathy” (i.e. kidney disease caused by cadmium) “ is still prevalent, progressive and irreversible among the inhabitants of the Jinzu River basin, and new occurrences of itai-itai disease are found even today.”

This may seem as relevant as the start of many a fairy tale – “long long ago and far far way” – to those of us on this island floating off the north west of Europe.

However the EU has been trying, unsuccessfully, to reduce cadmium exposure in its citizens for years. The source of cadmium contamination of European soil? Mineral fertilizers.

According to a European Parliament report from December 2016:

“The long-term use of mineral phosphorus fertiliser has contributed to increased cadmium concentrations in agricultural soils. There are indications that crops produced by organic farming, specifically cereal crops, have comparatively low cadmium concentrations, although this is not certain.”

It continues

“This is highly relevant to human health because food is the dominant route of human exposure to cadmium in non-smokers. The population’s current cadmium exposure is close to, and in some cases above, tolerable limits. There have been no studies comparing the effects of long-term organic vs. conventional farm management on cadmium concentration in crops. However, long-term experiments over more than 100 years indicate that cereal crops fertilised with mineral fertiliser tend to have a higher cadmium content compared to cereal crops fertilised with animal manure. This issue is highly relevant to human health and deserves further investigation.”

Moreover “a meta-analysis by Barański et al. included a total of 343 original peer-reviewed studies published between 1977 and December 2011.” This revealed “a 48 % higher cadmium content in conventional crops.”

It adds: “Fertilisation strategies developed and used in organic agriculture, and limits for the cadmium content in mineral fertilisers, constitute potential strategies for decreasing the cadmium concentration in conventionally-produced crops.”

However, as is typical, this human health impact is not paid for anywhere in the conventional food chain. Concurrently, organic crops, with their lower yield but also, arguably, lower cadmium levels, cost more per tonne to produce and for the consumer in the form of foodstuffs.

The public health purse takes up the slack, so it’s the tax payer who pays. The organic consumer self-taxes by purchasing the more expensive product – thereby paying twice.

And yet, in the strange word of EU institutions and its reporting, another recent document somehow states “the expected additional costs of introducing mandatory or voluntary maximum threshold levels for cadmium in inorganic fertilizer are larger than the expected benefits.”

It seems unlikely that 21st Century Europeans have a higher pain threshold than early 20th Century Japanese.

This article by Oliver Moore first appeared in the Irish Examiner newspaper’s farming section.


The Three Most Important Human Health Implications of Organic Food


Open Letter: Revision of the EU fertiliser regulation and cadmium


Avatar photo
About Oliver Moore 216 Articles

Dr. Oliver Moore is the communications director and editor-in-chief with ARC2020. He has a PhD in the sociology of farming and food, where he specialised in organics and direct sales. He is published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies, International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology and the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. A weekly columnist and contributor with Irish Examiner, he is a regular on Countrywide (Irish farm radio show on the national broadcaster RTE 1) and engages in other communications work around agri-food and rural issues, such as with the soil, permaculture, climate change adaptation and citizen science initiative Grow Observatory . He lectures part time in the Centre for Co-operative Studies UCC.

A propos d'Oliver Moore
Oliver voyage beaucoup moins qu’auparavant, pour ce qui concerne son activité professionnelle. Il peut néanmoins admirer par la fenêtre de son bureau les mésanges charbonnières et les corbeaux perchés au sommet du saule dans le jardin de sa maison au cœur de l’écovillage de Cloughjordan, en Irlande. L’écovillage est un site de 67 acres dans le nord du Tipperary. Il comprend d’espaces boisés, des paysages comestibles, des lieux de vie, d’habitation et de travail, ainsi qu’une ferme appartenant à la communauté. Les jours où il travaille dans le bureau du centre d’entreprise communautaire, il profite d’une vue sur les chevaux, les panneaux solaires, les toilettes sèches et les jardins familiaux. 

Ce bureau au sein de l’écovillage constitue en effet un tiers-lieu de travail accueillant également des collaborateurs des associations Cultivate et Ecolise, ainsi qu’un laboratoire de fabrication (« fab lab »). 

Oliver est membre du conseil d’administration de la ferme communautaire (pour la seconde fois !) et donne également des cours sur le Master en coopératives, agroalimentaire et développement durable à l’University College Cork. Il a une formation en sociologie rurale : son doctorat et les articles qu’il publie dans des journaux scientifiques portent sur ce domaine au sens large.

Il consacre la majorité de son temps de travail à l’ARC 2020. Il collabore avec ARC depuis 2013, date à laquelle l’Irlande a assuré la présidence de l’UE pendant six mois. C’est là qu’il a pu constater l’importance de la politique agroalimentaire et rurale grâce à sa chronique hebdomadaire sur le site d’ARC. Après six mois, il est nommé rédacteur en chef et responsable de la communication, poste qu’il occupe toujours aujourd’hui. Oliver supervise le contenu du site web et des médias sociaux, aide à définir l’orientation de l’organisation et parfois même rédige un article pour le site web. 

À l’époque où on voyageait davantage, il a eu la chance de passer du temps sous les tropiques, où il a aidé des ONG irlandaises de commerce équitable – au Ghana, au Kenya, au Mali, en Inde et au Salvador – à raconter leur histoire.

Il se peut que ces jours-là reviennent. Pour son compte Oliver continuera de préférer naviguer en Europe par bateau, puis en train. Après tout, la France n’est qu’à une nuit de navigation. En attendant, il y a toujours de nombreuses possibilités de bénévolat dans la communauté dans les campagnes du centre de l’Irlande.