Ecological theories can be applied to improve agricultural sustainability. In our study, a core hypothesis behind this claim is that “selfish behaviour” of rice cultivars results in “aversion” to a toxic substance in a multi-cropping system. We studied Changliangyou 772, a low-cadmium rice cultivar, cultivated with 11 different rice cultivars in intercropping and mixed systems. Rice cultivars with medium grain yield, ranging from 25 to 45 g plant-1, had distinctly higher yields in mixtures. Rice varieties with lower grain cadmium concentrations in monocultures had greater reductions in grain cadmium in the mixtures. In the intercropping systems, the yields of Changliangyou 772 were positively correlated with those of the neighbouring rice cultivars, while the grain cadmium showed a negative correlation with the grain cadmium of intercrops in the monocultures. The neighbouring cultivars with low grain cadmium concentrations in the intercropping showed higher cadmium concentrations in the monocultures. The intercropping and mixtures reduced the grain cadmium in two ways: 1) they increased the soil pH, resulting in lower cadmium bioavailability; and 2) they enhanced the iron plaque (Ip). However, a high Ip or cadmium concentration that was too high in the Ip weakened the Ip to block cadmium uptake by the roots.