22 March 2019
Farmland pollution in China poses risk to people's health and also endangers the nation's food safety. Photo: Bloomberg
Farmland pollution in China poses risk to people's health and also endangers the nation's food safety. Photo: Bloomberg

Soil pollution to have grave consequences for China

A report released on April 17 has revealed that 16.1 percent of China’s soil and nearly one-fifth of its arable land had been contaminated, largely by heavy metals such as cadmium, nickel and arsenic. This is the price the country has paid for its meteoric rise over the last 35 years, when little thought was given to protecting the environment.

The report, based on a joint study by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land and Resources from April 2005 to December 2013, found that 19.4 percent of farmland was contaminated, ranging from 11.2 percent “slightly” contaminated to 1.1 percent “heavily” polluted.

China accounts for 20 percent of the world’s population but possesses only 10 percent of its arable land. The contamination of almost one-fifth of its farmland raises serious health issues and also makes it difficult for Beijing to remain basically self-sufficient in the production of food.

Environmental pollution has resulted in the proliferation of “cancer villagers” in the country, with an 8-year-old girl in Jiangsu province emerging last November as the country’s youngest lung cancer patient.

The environmental protection ministry said in 2006 that more than 10 percent of farmland was polluted, and that about 12 million tons of grain was contaminated by heavy metals annually.
Last December, the Ministry of Land and Resources disclosed that about 3.33 million hectares of arable land, about the size of Belgium, was too contaminated to farm.

The latest report, that 19.4 percent of farmland is contaminated, suggests that the situation has greatly worsened since the 2006 report, with twice the amount of arable land now being contaminated.

Pan Genxing, an expert at Nanjing Agricultural University, citing a nationwide survey of rice supplies, has reportedly said that 10 percent of the country’s annual rice output contains excessive levels of cadmium. That is to say, about 20 million tons of the rice produced each year is contaminated.

Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, adjacent to Hong Kong, released data last year showing that inspectors of the city’s Food and Drug Administration found that 44 percent of the rice tested showed high cadmium content.

Greenpeace East Asia, part of the global environmental organization Greenpeace, disclosed last week that in a study conducted in villages near a cluster of heavy metals smelters in Hunan province, there were not only concentrations of cadmium but also of lead, arsenic and mercury.

Clearly, much of China’s soil is contaminated and heavy metals are entering the food chain, with dire consequences for consumers.

Another consequence is that China will be increasingly forced to import food.

In fact, in February the State Council, or cabinet, issued guidelines under which grain production will drop from the record output of 602 million tons last year to 550 million tons in 2020. The guidelines called for greater emphasis on “food safety and quality” over quantity.

The release of the soil-contamination report was unexpected. Only weeks earlier, the government had refused to make public the study’s findings, citing the state secrets law.

However, in February, Premier Li Keqiang signed a directive ordering officials not to use “state secrets” as an excuse to avoid disclosing information that should be public knowledge. The release of the soil contamination report appears to be a direct result of this directive.

The current five-year plans calls for a 15 percent reduction in emission for five heavy metals — lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and arsenic – in key polluted areas, from 2007 levels. That year, China discharged 900 tons of the five metals.

Premier Li promised a war on pollution when he delivered his annual report to the National People’s Congress in March. One step in that war was the passage of a revised Environmental Protection Law last week, the first amendment to the law since its original passage in 1998.

This new law is welcome, strengthening as it does the hand of those charged with protecting the environment. For example, the old law only provided for a one-off fine for an offence, but under the new law offenders can be fined on a daily basis — which will hurt.

China needs a thorough change in mindset from that of the previous 35 years, when growth was seen as paramount. The country’s GDP at the end of 2013 stood at US$9.3 trillion. But this figure does not take into account the cost of environmental degradation, which the Ministry of Environmental Protection estimated at 3.5 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the cost in terms of human lives cannot even be estimated.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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