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article imageA secret no more: One-fifth of China's soil is contaminated

By Karen Graham     Apr 18, 2014 in Environment
When is a state secret no longer considered secret? How about when the secret has grown so bad that there is fear that irreparable damage to the environment and to the population as a whole will result in consequences for which there is no remedy.
The extent of soil pollution in China has been a closely guarded state secret, known only to a few government officials for years. But in an official press release issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land and soil on April 17, the real extent of the damage to the country's soil and the damage done by toxic inorganic pollutants was made known.
China's unrelenting march toward urbanization and industrialization, along with an almost total disregard of the environmental consequences has led to a dire situation. Not only is the air in many places so contaminated with toxins it is making people sick, at least one-fifth of the country's farmland is contaminated and unfit for growing crops. This problem is far-reaching, with economic and geopolitical consequences at the international level.
The survey, conducted over a period of seven years, from 2005 to 2013, covered two-thirds of the country, or about 2.7 million square miles. It was found that 16.1 percent of the country's soil was contaminated, and 19.4 percent of the farmland was contaminated. The ministry, on its website, (, informed the public that 82.8 percent of the soil samples collected contained toxic inorganic pollutants, including cadmium, nickel, mercury, arsenic, chromium and lead.
Almost 66 million acres of farmland are laced with toxic chemicals and should be taken out of agricultural production. The Chinese government has set 300 million acres of farmland as the minimum amount of land needed to ensure the country's food security. If the 66 million acres were deemed unfit for agriculture, the arable land left for agricultural use would fall 32 million acres below China's "red-line" for the land needed for food production.
The ministry blamed agricultural production as well as other human industries for the contamination, saying the problem had been occurring over a long period. Despite China's size, with its large population, there is a scarcity of arable land when looking at things on a per-capita basis. China's is only half the global average in food production. The fear is quite real that agricultural lands will have to be taken out of production, resulting in increasing dependence on imports.
The big concern at the international level is the disruption on the global food production system, already beginning to feel the effects of global climate change, population growth and increasing industrialization in developing countries. The need for China to increase their imports of necessary food could cause a back-lash with their neighbors.
The Chinese government has a number of issues that need further scrutiny, the primary one being the present lack of any strong control over existing pollution regulations, particularly at the local level where officials have a vested interest in the industries doing the polluting. There is also the need for more stringent efforts to control air pollution. This story will become more convoluted as the world awaits China's response to this latest bit of bad news.
More about China, soil contamination, state secret, Cadmium, nickle
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