US rice exported to Haiti may be harmful to health

Closeup image of rice

New research from Jackie Goodrich

Research associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences

Rice exported to Haiti—mostly from the United States—contains unhealthy levels of arsenic and cadmium, which can increase the risk of various cancers, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses, new research shows.

University of Michigan researchers, in partnership with the Community Organization for Haitian Agriculture, say their study is the first to compare the amount of heavy metals in local rice vs. rice exported by foreign countries.

The researchers are urging policymakers and others, especially in the US where the farm bill will expire in September 2024, to update a system of trade that harms Haitians and citizens of other major rice-consuming countries by allowing foreign rice to flood local markets—making it nearly impossible for local farmers to sell their own.

"Haitian farmers grow a wide array of healthy produce but struggle in the markets when competing against cheap imported rice," said Jackie Goodrich, research associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at University of Michigan School of Public Health.

The study started when first author V Koski-Karell was conducting dissertation research in Haiti and learned of reports of gastrointestinal illness in local residents after eating foreign rice. Heavy metals were the suspected cause.

Knowing the long-term health risks, a research collaboration began with rural Haitian farmers to collect samples and measure the arsenic and cadmium in local rice and rice from foreign countries. Rice is a staple of the Haitian diet.

Their testing showed: 

  • Median concentrations for both arsenic and cadmium were nearly twice as high in imported rice compared to local rice.
  • All samples of rice grown in Haiti were found to have arsenic levels below international limits recommended to protect human health. Some imported rice samples exceeded these levels.
  • Adults of varying weights consuming three or more cups of imported rice per day would exceed a daily minimum risk level for toxicity. According to recent United Nations estimates, Haitians eat an average of 2.9 cups of rice per day.
  • Most young children consuming one or more cups of local or imported rice per day would exceed a health-based arsenic intake limit.

The study was published earlier this month in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development.

"This system perpetuates poverty and hardship for Haitian rice farmers, as well as for millions of others in countries on the receiving end of cheaper foreign imports," said Koski-Karell, who is now at the University of Washington. "With the 2024 Farm Bill soon up for discussion, there is an opportunity for legislators and their constituents to promote a more equitable system that ultimately benefits all."

Haiti has a population of 11 million people and is the second-largest export market for US rice.

According to the study, the US Farm Bill legislation has directed tax dollars toward making rice one of the most heavily supported commodities in the US for nearly three decades. The overwhelming presence of foreign, and particularly US-grown rice in Haiti, is grounded in a history of policy reforms intended to allow this heavily subsidized US rice to flood Haiti's market, the researchers say.

"It's an avoidable situation," Goodrich said. "There are important implications for policymakers, vendors and consumers who seek to safeguard health in Haiti."

It's worth noting that studies done by researchers other than these through the years on rice consumed by US citizens report varying amounts of arsenic, including some that would exceed recommended limits for health. Arsenic levels vary by the region rice was grown in. However, the frequency of rice consumption in the US is much lower on average than it is in Haiti and some other nations, meaning the total intake of arsenic among US rice consumers is much less.

Additional findings and recommendations of the study on Haitian rice include:

  • Advising the government and citizens of Haiti to do more to support Haitian farmers and the national agricultural sector so that Haitian consumers can have access to safe locally grown food and a diverse healthful diet.
  • The need for further research to assess arsenic levels present in the bodies of Haitian consumers and the likelihood of adverse health effects linked to chronic arsenic exposure.
  • A call for an ethics investigation of rice corporations in the US and other countries that export food with elevated levels of arsenic to Haiti and other low- and middle-income countries.
  • The dire need to strengthen the efficacy of food safety regulations and interventions in Haiti's government, including access to the instruments that quantify arsenic and cadmium levels in rice the population is consuming.
  • Use a study like this one to equip Haitian consumers with knowledge to make informed purchases and advocate for local produce.

"By maintaining a system dependent almost exclusively on US rice, Haiti is importing a substantial amount of risk," Goodrich said.
In addition to Goodrich and Koski-Karell, co-authors include: Rolinx Jean Monprevil of the Community Organization for Haitian Agriculture; Justin Schell and Simone Charles of UM-Ann Arbor and Natalie Sampson of UM-Dearborn.


Destiny CookKim North Shine

Senior Public Relations Representative, Health Sciences
Michigan News