China's Pollution Problem Is Also a Food Safety Crisis

Eight million acres of Chinese farmland is so contaminated that it's now closed to farming.

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Reuters

Tests recently conducted on rice sold in Hong Kong found that grain imports from mainland China contained excessive levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal that can cause cancer and other health problems. Cadmium can originate from the slurry of waste materials that leaches into the ground from open dumps.

And for China, Hong Kong's rice is just one food crisis among many.

Recently, a slew of reports has examined the relationship between China's pollution and the food it farms. In the latest, the government issued a statement that 8 million acres of China's farmland is so contaminated that growing food crops there will be prohibited until it can be properly rehabilitated. That's an area of arable land the size of Belgium that is now closed to farming.

That number comes out of China's second national land survey, released last month and now fueling public anxiety about food safety. Though 8 million is just a fraction of the 334.6 million acres of total arable land in China at the end of 2012, the afflicted land contributed to a 38.1 million-acre buffer the government maintains to ensure national food security. That buffer will soon disappear, however, and the amount of arable land will drop to 296.5 million acres, due to soil pollution and the restoration of some areas to forests and wetlands.

It's estimated that fully one-sixth of China's land is affected by soil pollution from factories and industrial runoff; more than 13 million tons of crops are tainted with heavy metals, what a China Daily op-ed called a "looming public health hazard" back in June. In a 2012 study, the government reported that 55 percent of the country's groundwater ranked as "poor" or "very poor" in quality.

Part of the story of this crisis is the dovetailing of various demands: Hunan Province is the rice bowl of China, but it's also a leading producer of metals, so industrial pollution from one industry has been contaminating the other.

Is there a light at the end of this tunnel? Some think it's green. A new report by Credit Suisse predicts a "green decade" for China, with estimates that the government will spend $561 billion on the environment over the next five years alone. In September, the government passed a five-year air pollution plan, issuing some of the toughest emissions standards in the world. And the previous month, Chinese legislators pledged to address soil and water losses by 2017. In that arena, at least, there have been no specifics thus far.

Top image: A volunteer removes blades of leaves found inside a bucket of rice grains collected from one of the last paddy fields at Hong Kong's New Territories, near the border with Shenzhen November 6, 2013. (Reuters)

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