China’s pollution problem impacts a fifth of farmland - report

Government study raises questions about toxic results of rapid industrialisation

The Chinese government has released a report which says nearly one-fifth of its arable land was polluted. Photograph of  a steel plant  in Fengnan district of Tangshan, Hebei province. Photograph: Petar Kujundzic/Files/Reuters

The Chinese government has released a report which says nearly one-fifth of its arable land was polluted. Photograph of a steel plant in Fengnan district of Tangshan, Hebei province. Photograph: Petar Kujundzic/Files/Reuters

Fri, Apr 18, 2014, 16:49

The Chinese government has released a report which says nearly one-fifth of its arable land was polluted, a finding certain to raise questions about the toxic results of China’s rapid industrialisation, its lack of regulations over commercial interests and the consequences for the national food chain.

The report, issued by China’s ministry of environmental protection and the ministry of land resources, said 16.1 per cent of the country’s soil was polluted, including 19.4 per cent of farmland.

The report was based on a study done from April 2005 to last December on more than 240 square miles (380 square km) of land across mainland China, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.

The report said that “the main pollution source is human industrial and agricultural activities,” according to Xinhua. More specifically, factory waste products, irrigation of land by polluted water, the improper use of fertilizers and pesticides, and livestock breeding have all resulted in tainted farmland, the report said.

The study found that 82.8 percent of the polluted land was contaminated by inorganic material. The three most common pollutants found were cadmium, nickel and arsenic, and the levels of these materials in the soil had risen sharply since land studies in 1986 and 1990. The level of cadmium had risen by 50 percent in the southwest and in coastal areas and by 10 to 40 percent in other regions, Xinhua reported. The soil in southern China is more heavily polluted than in the north.

The report confirms spreading fears among many officials and ordinary Chinese that the country’s soil has been in severe decline. The report also indicates a problem more serious than was detailed in a book published in early 2013 by the ministry of environmental protection, ‘Soil Pollution and Physical Health’ which said one-sixth of China’s arable land, or nearly 50 million acres, was polluted.

Officials have become increasingly vocal about the problem in the last year. In December, a vice minister of land and resources, Wang Shiyuan, said at a news conference that 8 million acres of land across China, about half the size of the Republic of Ireland was so polluted that farming should not be allowed on it.

Hunan province, in central China, has some of the worst soil pollution because it is one of China’s top producers of nonferrous metals. But the province is also one of China’s biggest rice-growing areas, producing 16 percent of the country’s rice in 2012, according to one market research company. Officials in Guangdong province last year found that some batches of rice had excessive levels of cadmium, which set off alarms across the country. Most of the tainted rice was from Hunan.

The findings of another recent nationwide soil survey were never shared with the public, with officials calling them a “state secret.” That survey ended in 2010, according to environmental advocates who have been pushing for the results to be released.

New York Times