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article imageOp-Ed: Agriculture has become China's biggest polluter

By Karen Graham     Apr 17, 2015 in Environment
China's vice-minister of Agriculture Zhang Taolin said on Friday that agriculture has overtaken industry as the biggest non-point polluter in the country. Zhang said soil and water pollution hazards have increased the need for the safety of food crops.
Zhang pointed to two problems facing the country regarding the degree of pollution being seen. One is the decline in quality of arable farmland, and two, the continuing excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides. There has also been mismanagement of agricultural wastes, including animal dung, he said.
Does this mean there is going to be sweeping changes in how agricultural pollution is managed? I say this because what Zhang is reportedly saying is really nothing new to the world. China's pollution problem has been an ongoing anchor around the neck of the country's progress in becoming a world leader for decades.
Dependency on large-scale agribusiness farming
In March of this year, as reported in the China Digital Times, Michael Meyer, author of β€œIn Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China,” talked with the Los Angeles Times about China's shift from collective farming to industrial-sized agribusiness.
Meyer points out that one-fifth of the world's population feeds off of one-twelfth of the world's arable land. The government in Beijing has set aside 300 million acres as that portion of the arable land needed to feed its people and ensure food security. But based of a Digital Journal account published on April, 2014, 66 million acres of that land is laced with toxic chemicals.
Agriculture methods are the biggest problem
For the past couple years, everything from smoking bacon outdoors, and the burning of forests in South East Asia to industry and too many automobiles has been blamed as the "main source" of pollution in China. Meanwhile, the country's agricultural land has been polluted and contaminated, and the world has known about it for years.
In 2010, China reported that farmer's fields were a bigger source of pollution than factory effluents, as reported in The Guardian. Government officials at that time said a two-year study involving 570,000 people made them decide a "partial realignment of environmental policy" was in order, inclusive of everything from smokestacks to chicken coops.
According to the study, (which, by the way, was refuted by the ministry of agriculture), agriculture was responsible for 43.7 percent of the nation's chemical oxygen demand. (This is the main measure of organic compounds in water), 67 percent of phosphorus and 57 percent of nitrogen discharges.
The minister of agriculture, Wang Yangliang, ended up recognizing the numbers were due to the increasing use of intensive agriculture methods, and had to admit to the possibility of improper uses at times.
"Fertilizers and pesticides have played an important role in enhancing productivity but in certain areas improper use has had a grave impact on the environment," he said. "The fast development of livestock breeding and aquaculture has produced a lot of food but they are also major sources of pollution in our lives."
Still no curbs on excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides
Today, China is the world's biggest producer of watermelons, apples, strawberries and a number of other vegetables. The country is also a heavy consumer of fertilizers, responsible for using one-third of the world's total. The excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides has led to a myriad of other problems.
"Agricultural non-point source pollution is worsening, exacerbating the risk of soil and water pollution," said the agriculture ministry in a statement. Besides water pollution, there is soil pollution with heavy metals, and pesticide contamination on food crops that threaten the health of humans and animals, as well as agricultural productivity.
Zhang says pesticide consumption can be cut back 30,000 tons to just 300,000 tons annually. Chemical fertilizer use has increased 5.2 percent a year, with growers using 805 pounds per 2.5 acres of vegetables. The World Health Organization (WHO) showed that in the U.S., growers used 289 pounds for the same amount of land, and in Spain, growers used 274 pounds.
Whether of not Zhang can facilitate a change in agricultural practices remains to be seen. It has been five years since a "partial realignment of environmental policy" was said to be needed. The past five years have shown no improvement.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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