Filth to Table
Relentless Pollution is Poisoning China’s Food, Soil
© Getty Images

© Getty Images

In many parts of China, officials are caught between two competing priorities: industrial development and food production. Most often, officials’ prime concern is industrial development—characterized by factories and mining, usually—since it is the bigger driver of economic growth. But, predictably, unfettered industrial development results in extremely poor conditions for food production. And it’s getting worse. Much worse. An article in yesterday’s New York Times has some sobering statistics.

An alarming glimpse of official findings came on Monday, when a vice minister of land and resources, Wang Shiyuan, said at a news conference in Beijing that eight million acres of China’s farmland, equal to the size of Maryland, had become so polluted that planting crops on it “should not be allowed.” […]

One-sixth of China’s arable land — nearly 50 million acres — suffers from soil pollution, according to a book published this year by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The book, “Soil Pollution and Physical Health,” said that more than 13 million tons of crops harvested each year were contaminated with heavy metals, and that 22 million acres of farmland were affected by pesticides.

The result of farming on polluted land is unsurprising: poisoned food. 155 batches of rice collected from markets and restaurants in Guangdong Province in May were found to have excess levels of cadmium. Cadmium is mined for use in manufacturing cell phones and batteries, which China makes in abundance, but if ingested it can lead to organ failure, cancer, and severely weakened bones. One Chinese blogger wondered recently: “Now before every meal must we all first wonder: Does this rice have too much cadmium? Are the vegetables laced with pesticide?”

Hunan Province, where much of the contaminated rice, is a sorry example. Hunan produced 16 percent of China’s rice in 2012. It is also a top producer of non-ferrous metals like zinc and aluminum and a disproportionate polluter, responsible for 41 percent of the country’s cadmium pollution. Cadmium and other heavy metals are discharged by factories and mines into rivers and thence into irrigation channels, where they wind up in rice plants. The rice makes its way to markets and restaurants, and rice husks are fed to animals raised for consumption. Despite this officials are loath to crack down on the factories and mines. “They have to feed the country with their rice, but they want to grow their economy,” one soil researcher said of Hunan government officials. “There’s this pressure from the central government on Hunan to maintain a high level of yield for rice production. On the other hand, rice production never gives you the same kind of G.D.P. growth that industrial development gives you.”

There has been some effort by officials to stop such destructive pollution, but not much. The State Council, China’s Cabinet, announced it would set up “monitoring” programs by 2015. In the meantime, researchers are finding high rates of cancer in villages near polluted rivers. Increased access to pollution statistics would help environmental groups target the worst polluters, and indeed the government has conducted soil testing across the country in recent years. But the results of those tests, unfortunately, are classified as “state secrets” and locked away.

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  • TommyTwo

    So the Chinese need to worry that their rice may contain too much cadmium, leading to organ failure, cancer, and severely weakened bones. Similarly, the Filipinos need to worry that their rice may contain beta-carotene, leading to possible overpopulation and increased ocular sensitivity.

    Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

    [/sarc]

  • Rick Johnson

    “There’s this pressure from the central government on Hunan to maintain a high level of yield for rice production. On the other hand, rice production never gives you the same kind of G.D.P. growth that industrial development gives you.”
    This is the problem with any State run system. It is designed to meet a measurable target, in this case GDP growth, rather than meet the needs of the people, in this case edible food.

    The West has the same problem with State run health and education systems.

  • SDLakeshore

    China; welcome to the West.

    • rheddles

      Yeah, as a westerner I worry about what’s in my food before every meal.

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