ugly side of food graphic

When thinking about food the first image that comes to our mind might be the so-called 'food porn' photography that the marketing industry relies upon when advertising food products. But there is also an ugly side of food the industry is not willing to portray and it involves chemical fertilisers.

Greenpeace East Asia initiated an investigation to uncover the 'ugly side of food', focusing on the Chinese province of Sichuan where major phosphate fertiliser production occurs.

The findings are indicative of wider environmental troubles across China and show evidence of hazardous chemicals within phosphate production waste (phosphogypsum), dumped in the open and, more importantly, in close proximity to local villages.

PG waste pile

Analysis of phosphogypsum samples revealed levels of fluoride, a potentially hazardous substance, above Chinese national limits for hazardous wastes at several of the sites investigated. At one site, where a 20-metre high waste pile is located next to a village, levels of fluoride found in leachate (a fluid that comes from the phospogypsum waste) were seven times above the limits.


A group of villagers, exasperated by the company and the local government's dismissive behavior, bought a land digger and started removing the waste themselves.

Although we do not approve of such potentially harmful behaviour, the villagers' actions are a sign of distress and love for their land and community. It also sends a challenging message to the authorities that failed to care for their people.

The factual and visual evidence, gathered by the Greenpeace East Asia investigation, is just another reminder of the brutal expressions of the heavily industrialised approach to our agriculture and food production systems. Industrial, chemical-intensive agriculture uses massive amounts of synthetic fertilisers [pdf], which heavily rely on intensive and wasteful processing with dire environmental and human consequences.

We believe that agriculture and food production do not need to be heavily reliant on the use of chemical fertilisers. Our vision for agriculture is based on organic fertilisation techniques (for example green manures, crop rotation and recycled nutrients), as a more environmentally friendly way to pursue farming.

Despite what the agricultural industry's propaganda repetitively tries to deny, a truly ecological system can produce food for all without the use of chemical inputs.

We must start along this ecological path now, not only for the affected Chinese communities of Sichuan but people across the globe, so that one day they won't have to pay a high environmental and human price for the food that is served on the tables all over China and elsewhere.

Alessandro Saccoccio is the Ecological Farming Communications Manager at Greenpeace International