Pollution Threatens China's Food Security

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A Reuters report this week noted that nearly 3.33 million hectares (eight million acres) of Chinese farmland are too polluted to grow crops. The article, which was re-posted by the state-run China Daily news site, quoted Wang Shiyuan, China’s vice minister of land and resources. Wang says that the government is determined to address the issue of polluted farmland, and will commit “tens of billions of yuan” each year to help return the land to a usable state.

Food security is a major concern for Chinese leaders, and worries over this issue already had the potential to severely slow down other planned reforms such as urbanization. The announcement on China’s pollution levels further complicates the balance of preserving farmland and speeding up urbanization. Wang Shiyuan noted that the amount of polluted land represents nearly 2 percent of the country’s arable land, which is not something the Chinese government can ignore.  China’s per capita arable land area is already less than half of the world average — the country simply can’t afford to lose any more land to pollution.

China’s government wants to ensure enough arable land is left reserved for farming, and the large swath of polluted fields cuts into that amount. Xinhua reports that China’s arable land survey counted about 135.4 million hectares (334.6 million acres) of farmland — but after removing from that count land reserved for “forest and pasture restoration” as well as land too polluted for crop-growing, the “actual available arable land was just slightly above the government’s red-line” of preserving 120 million hectares (296 million acres) of usable farm land. In other words, pollution is presenting a dangerous threat to one of the government’s highest priorities.

This presents a tough choice for Chinese leaders: let the land lie fallow and risk disrupting food supplies, or allow crops to be grown on tainted soil. Wang’s remarks show the government is leaning towards the former. Tainted crops have already caused scares among China’s citizens. A report by Guangzhou in May found that nearly half the rice in the cities’ restaurants had excessive levels of the heavy metal cadmium. The city’s residents were outraged when the report was published.  The rice in Guangzhou was linked to polluted plots in Hunan province, which produces 11 percent of China’s total rice each year. Caixin published an article arguing that cover-ups by both local and provincial governments allowed the problem to spread before it exploded into the public consciousness in late spring 2013.

In a way, Wang’s public report could actually be good news for environmental advocates.  For one, it shows that the central government is taking the problem seriously, and might be taking steps to increase transparency in the tracking and reporting of soil and water pollution. Even more importantly, food security is a non-negotiable for China’s government and pollution becoming a serious impediment to ensuring a steady supply of crops. Now China’s leaders will be more willing to make the hard choices necessary to clean up the land and water pollution in China’s rural areas. This might mean setting strict new pollution limits for businesses, or even closing down factories that operate close to farmland.

Unfortunately, however, the food security crisis could also negatively impact the environment. Chinadialogue reported back in November that the government was letting reforestation subsidies (money paid to farmers who plant trees on their land) expire over food security concerns. Wang’s remarks seem to promise that some land is being kept in reserve for reforestation and the creation of pasture land. If China’s arable land continues to creep down towards the “red line,” it will be very tempting for the government to reclaim this land for agriculture — which Chinadialogue argues will speed up desertification, putting China at risk in other ways.

Comments
16
Tanktoo
January 14, 2014 at 03:46

“Reuters report this week noted that nearly 3.33 million hectares (eight million acres) of Chinese farmland are too polluted to grow crops”

The sad reality is those land will still be growing crops which will find its way to the dinner table. The government is powerless or too corrupted to be powerful or unwilling to stop it. Things will probably get much worse even it’s already way bad enough.

bibotsky
January 2, 2014 at 02:04

I hope China does not “Export” it’s pollutants to other countries.

JP
January 2, 2014 at 07:38

Too late, they are already doing that, that’s why I don’t buy any food product not even for my pets from China

Observer
January 1, 2014 at 13:32

Dear chinese posters,

Do come in and tell us how great china is and how it will take over the world as #1. Ha!!!

You can’t even support your own kind with decent food and water. Good luck, you are going to need it, lot of it.

fgt
January 1, 2014 at 22:15

China is in the process of fixing that, and in the meantime she would just import the grains from her chinese owned farms in Africa and Russia.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/22/us-china-russia-agriculture-insight-idUSBRE9BL00X20131222

Fake Japanese economy
January 2, 2014 at 10:16

Japan is not self-sufficient in food production, and their water is polluted by nuclear radiation, are you saying Japan’s #2 in the world economy is fake?

Observer
January 2, 2014 at 10:24

Really? Fixing like this?

http://www.chinahush.com/2009/10/21/amazing-pictures-pollution-in-china/

Just a little over a month ago = http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/21/china-smog-photos-pollution_n_4137675.html

Those farms owned by china? Ha! Another lie. Those land are owned by the natives. Bully china and chinese are just leasing them. The natives can take it back anytime.

Keep on dreaming about being #1 because it will be a dream.

TDog
January 1, 2014 at 06:49

It is interesting that conservatives in the United States laugh at China’s pollution problems while advocating the removal of the EPA and all environmental protection laws back at home. China is a prime example of what happens when you place economic growth ahead of environmental preservation.

Fortunately China seems to be heeding the warning signs. Let’s hope they clean up their act before it’s too late.

Tom F
January 2, 2014 at 06:37

not sure how you could compare China to US, even conservative US. From down under, California (under Gov. Schwarzenegger) is highly respected world wide as the model of a clean economy.

China, is the wild, wild, west race to the filthiest, all in the name of making money for a few, at the expense of the rest of the country, and often at the expense of even poorer countries bordering China.

Oro Invictus
January 1, 2014 at 06:39

I dislike linking to old comments, especially more than once, but this bears repeating:

http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/chinas-new-urbanization-plan/

You’ll notice, in that series of calculations, I used the baseline of 2 million km^2 of arable land; I noted this was a best-case scenario, which I primarily utilized PRC data for. This left us at ~.0015 km^2 per capita, well below the orthodox requirements of .006 km^2 of arable land and even below the (highly unrealistic) low-ball estimates of .002 km^2 of arable land per capita.

If these new PRC reports are even somewhat accurate (and, let’s be honest, even if they aren’t they almost certainly fall higher than the actual value), this means the PRC has ~1.35 km^2 of arable land (using the unadjusted value), or ~.001 km^2 per capita. I will also note this isn’t even considering that not all arable land can be used as efficiently (indeed, apparently a significant amount of the arable land surveyed was on hillsides, which cannot be utilized nearly as efficiently as flat land).

In other words, for the nation-state to reach developed levels and have no significant issues with malnutrition while remaining self-sufficient, they would have to increase the amount of arable land in the PRC by 200-600%. This once again raises the issue of the PRC’s red line, given this deficit of arable land essentially means the PRC will be utterly reliant upon imports for food. While other nations with even worse situations domestically (Singapore, Japan, South Korea, etc.), none of these have populations anywhere near the size of the PRC.

That this has not triggered the CPC to issue an immediate moratorium or, at least, a shifting-down of activities such as the directed urbanization program or the consumerism drive in that nation-state is, quite frankly, mind-boggling. Add into that issue that food productivity gains are decreasing in their rate of increase… I can’t help but feel my fears for the welfare of the people of the PRC worsen.

Oro Invictus
January 1, 2014 at 06:43

Corrections:

1) That should read “~1.35 million km^2″.

2) The last sentence of the second-to-last paragraph should go “While there are other nations with even worse situations domestically”.

Tteng
January 2, 2014 at 15:38

According to CIA factbook,

(Total landmass in km2 / arable land in % / population)

China: (9,600,000 / 11.62 / 1.35b) = 0.00082 km2/p
Japan: (378,000 / 11.26 / 127m) = 0.00034 km2/p
SK: ( 100,000 / 14.93 / 49m) = 0.00031 km2/p

Base on the calculation, China has more than 2x of arable land per person than other developed E.Asian economies ( i.e Japan and SK ). So, I don’t get your point.

Oro Invictus
January 3, 2014 at 01:51

@Tteng

I’m going to assume you missed this part of my comment:

“While there are other nations with even worse situations domestically (Singapore, Japan, South Korea, etc.), none of these have populations anywhere near the size of the PRC.”

tteng
January 3, 2014 at 02:56

I’m not an agriculturist (perhaps there are aspects of population in relation to land mass that are science of its own?), but..

1. It looks straight forward to me that: if you have 10x of population, and 10x of land, the relationship is the same whether it is 1/1, or 10/10. If Japan and SK can get to ‘developed’ status with 2x of land/population pressure than China, I really don’t get your ’200-600% increase criteria’ for China.

2. Calorie and nutrition intake wise, rich folks (developed) and poor folks (developing) don’t eat differently if they are mindful of their food intake. In particular, I think modern day Chinese are suffering from ‘overeating’ (i.e. obesity, and too much processed food) than starvation.

3. World trade: if Chinese wants more pork, they’ll get it from ‘Smithfield, USA’. More corn? ‘MidWest, USA’. More oil? ‘ME/Russia/Canada…’ Food supply, just like oil, is fungible and global.

Oro Invictus
January 3, 2014 at 05:13

“I’m not an agriculturist (perhaps there are aspects of population in relation to land mass that are science of its own?)”

Oh, heavens, indeed there is. Are you familiar with the principal of negative density-dependence?

“If Japan and SK can get to ‘developed’ status with 2x of land/population pressure than China, I really don’t get your ’200-600% increase criteria’ for China.”

Once again, I’m assuming you missed the part of my comment where I noted that this is what would be required for self-sufficiency, that is, for the PRC to be able to produce all of its own food.

“Calorie and nutrition intake wise, rich folks (developed) and poor folks (developing) don’t eat differently if they are mindful of their food intake. In particular, I think modern day Chinese are suffering from ‘overeating’ (i.e. obesity, and too much processed food) than starvation.”

As I noted, the base arable land requirements for a human being to survive with no issues with malnutrition, factoring in modern agricultural practices and gains, comes to .002-.006 km^2 per person (and, quite frankly, it’s practically far closer to the higher end of this). As such, the PRC falls well under this considering only its lands.

That obesity is a growing problem among some segments of the PRC’s population is immaterial to this; many, in the PRC still suffer from malnutrition and, for this to be eradicated, will require a far greater degree of food import.

Similarly, I’ve already noted the PRC is able to survive, for now, on food imports. The issue is that a nation-state which relies upon food imports to ensure its populace is well-fed is in a tenuous position; if something happens to interrupt such imports, then said nation-state will have to hope imports can be reestablished and stockpiles can hold out to then. This is even worse for larger populations, as it is far easier to secure food imports for a population of 100 million than 1 billion.

What you’re (apparently) failing to consider is that the rest of the world is also not doing particularly well in regards to arable land; currently, there is only about .002 km^2 of arable land on Earth for it’s population. Following current trends, this will only get worse, as demand increases whilst supply decreases. Given nation-states will only export food as long as they can guarantee their own population will be supplied, nation-states which rely on imports will find their food supplies far more uncertain. This isn’t even factoring in supply interruptions resulting from things such as conflict.

I’ve got some papers you may wish to read (I don’t know what you’re situation is regarding the accessing of academic papers, so I’ve only utilized those which are free for everyone):

http://www.pnas.org/content/96/11/5995.full

http://www.pnas.org/content/108/9/3465.full

http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0020197

Jen Whitten
January 12, 2014 at 23:01

Yes, this doesn’t end well for any of the countries you have listed that must import food or die. While countries are willing to export to them and peace prevails everything will be OK, but if things turn sour in the SCS then hunger will strike.

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