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.

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