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China’s pollution crisis is worse than thought

"A villager farms in front of a factory in Foshan"
"A villager farms in front of a factory in Foshan"
Photo: SCMP. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1486401/area-chinas-polluted-soil-twice-size-spain-survey-reveals

The first ever government-sponsored survey of land pollution was released to the public on Thursday, concluding that about one fifth of arable land in China is polluted with either organic or non-organic waste.

"The national soil pollution situation is not positive," said the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land Resources, who issued the report.

The survey was conducted over seven years, from 2005 to 2013, and included 630 square kilometers of land across the country (land in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan was not accounted for). While 16.1% of all soil in mainland China was found to be contaminated, the fact that 19.4% of all farmland is polluted causes the greatest alarm.

“Pollution of farmland is of particular concern in China because of how little of it the country has,” according to Josh Chin and Brian Spegele for the Wall Street Journal. The Ministry of Land and Resources announced last year that that 8.24 million acres of Chinese farmland were already unfit for food production, leaving the country only about 37 million acres away from the “red line” necessary to feed China’s population. In 2013, China fed 20% of the world’s population on less than 11% of the world’s agricultural land, but this feat won’t be replicable if arable land continues to disappear.

Long concealed as a “state secret,” China’s soil pollution is the product of decades of mining and industrial production, activities that were largely unchecked by environmental regulations. Air pollution in major Chinese cities has received widespread media attention over the past several years, but after these toxins seep from the air into the soil, it’s not long before food and water supplies are contaminated as well.

"Compared with air and water pollution, soil pollution is more difficult to control and remedy, taking a much longer time and needing more resources," said Chen Tongbin, research fellow with the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In addition to concerns over poisoned crops — cadmium-laced rice in Hunan province caused a major scare in April 2013 — people living in areas with contaminated soil risk respiratory and skin infections as well.

According to the report, the main cause of the widespread pollution is "human industrial and agricultural activities.” About 80% of these pollutants are non-organic materials, mostly cadmium, nickel and arsenic. The soil in Southern China is more heavily polluted than in the north, and pollution is considered severe in several industrial areas including the Yangtze River Delta in the east and the Pearl River Delta in the south.

Many Chinese citizens hailed the release of the pollution report as a step towards regulatory transparency, but others had a more resigned outlook. "I'm concerned, but I can't fix it," said Xiang Ju, a 29-year-old fruit vendor in Beijing. “The whole country is the same. You have to eat or you'll starve.”