China’s government acknowledged this week that 8 million acres of its farmland – a land mass about the size of Belgium — is too polluted for growing food. In 2013, dangerous levels of cadmium were detected in rice grown in Henan, a major heavy metal-producing region, and sold in nearby Guangzhou, one of China’s five largest cities at 14 million people. One report estimated that heavy metals taint up to 12 million tons of grain each year, costing the economy more than 20 billion yuan. State researchers have said that as much as 70 percent of China’s soil could have problems stemming from pesticides as well as toxic metals.
The government, which is under pressure to balance economic development with food security for China’s estimated 1.38 billion people, has announced a two-pronged attack on this environmental health problem. Its “red line” policy sets aside almost 300 million acres exclusively for agriculture, the minimum required for feeding China. But this acreage includes formerly polluted land, so China also announced that it would spend “tens of billions of yuan” a year on rehabilitating contaminated land and underground water supplies.
A July 2013 Wall Street Journal article foreshadowed this official announcement by adding to the 2013 timeline of pollution control troubles. In January, China’s official news agency spotlighted Zekou as a cancer village in Hubei province, linking it to the hazardous chemical waste problem posed by rural industrial parks. In February, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection refused to release the results of a multiyear soil-pollution survey, calling them a “state secret.” In March, state media reported that 168 villagers who live near a battery factory in Zhejiang had elevated blood lead levels. In May, the Guangzhou cadmium-in-rice story broke. This expose appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. “Chinese people have a very deep connection to rice,” says Liu Jianqiang, editor of China Dialogue, a nonprofit media organization that tracks environmental issues. “If you discover some vegetable or fruit is poisoned, you can say ‘I won’t eat it.’ But rice you can’t avoid.”
WSJ underscored that the expansion of polluting industries into remote areas (presumably to put a safe distance between its activities and population centers) and heavy use of chemical fertilizers are Chinese soil pollution’s main culprits. The rapid pace of urbanization drives both: growing urban populations want to push out nuisance industries and farmers seek maximum yields to feed China’s billions. Judith Shapiro, author of China’s Environmental Challenges, warns that current pollution problems are “perhaps the single most significant determinant of whether the Communist Party will maintain its legitimacy in coming years.”
(As an aside, the December 2, 2013 New Yorker article, In the Air, chronicles in the first person the discontent of China’s growing urban elite with government obfuscation of environmental health problems. It features Li Bo, a Friends of Nature activist who is helping cancer villagers sue a polluting chemical company; Zhang Bin, a software engineer and accidental environmentalist, who helped create an air quality app that averages 4000 downloads per day; and Han Zhigang, a second-generation steelworker who organized the Handan Sunshine Outdoor Activity Club which first provided clean air escapes to fellow urban dwellers and now promotes an organic farm-to-plate initiative.)
Some outside observers call for more action than the Chinese government has offered thus far. Increased transparency by the Ministries of Environmental Protection, Land and Resources, and Agriculture would give local governments and citizens access to existing research. More research needs to be done on soil pollution and the impact of heavy metals on health. Moving from science to policymaking, soil pollution laws could be improved. Siting laws could create barriers between incompatible land uses, like smelting and farming. As part of this legislative agenda, China could build an environmental health system that would monitor conditions and identify problems, and create a system for compensating pollution victims.
NOTE: The 12/31/13 NYT picked up this story, albeit a little late in the game. WSJ beat it to the press.