'Toxic' soil pollution report sparks new fears over safety of mainland's home-grown food

Government admits contamination, caused by all-year-round accumulation of toxins from factories, mining and agriculture, is worse in industrialised areas such as Pearl River and Yangstze deltas

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 April, 2014, 3:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2018, 4:48pm

The government has raised new fears over the safety of the mainland’s home-grown food after admitting that nearly one-fifth of the nation’s soil – including 19.4 per cent of its crop-growing areas – is polluted

Worst-hit areas are those where there have been years of unrestricted industrialisation – in the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas of southern China, and parts of the northeast – the government admitted on Thursday as it revealed the findings of a survey previously kept secret.

The contamination has been caused by the all-year-round accumulation of toxins from factories, mining and agriculture, the government said.

Of key concern among scientists is cadmium, a carcinogenic metal that can cause kidney damage and other health problems, and is absorbed by rice – the nation’s staple grain.

“The overall condition of the Chinese soil allows no optimism.”

Government soil pollution report 

“The overall condition of the Chinese soil allows no optimism,” said the report – carried out after a government investigation into soil quality in a variety of settings, including farmland, forests and areas earmarked for development – posted on the environment ministry website.

“Some regions suffer serious soil pollution underscored by worrying farm land quality and prominent problems with deserted industrial and mining land.”

More than 80 per cent of the pollution is the result of inorganic toxins, with the top three contaminants identified as cadmium, nickel and arsenic, said the report, announced jointly by the Environmental Protection Ministry and Land and Resources Ministry.

The area of the mainland’s polluted soil is enough to cover an area twice the size of Spain if joined together in a single land mass.

Of about 6.3 million square kilometres of soil surveyed for – roughly two thirds of the overall land area – 16.1 per cent was thought to be contaminated, including 19.4 per cent of its crop-growing farmland, the report said.

Last year the environment ministry described the results of its soil pollution survey as a state secret and refused to release the results – a move which incensed environmental campaigners.

The government has come under increasing pressure in recent years to take action to improve the environment, with large parts of the country repeatedly blanketed in thick smog and waterways and land polluted.

In response to public pressure, the central government has now released more accurate data on air pollution.

The soil pollution report – based on the results of a nationwide survey of soil samples taken from 2005 up until last year – confirms widespread concerns about the safety of China’s soil after decades of relentless growth in the country’s industry, the overuse of farm chemicals and lax environmental enforcement, which have left vast areas of the countryside polluted.

China’s leaders have expressed resolve in tackling the country’s pollution problem, although the threat to the country’s food-producing soil has so far been overshadowed by public alarm at smog and water contamination.

However, recent scandals of tainted rice and crops have begun to shift attention to soil.

Early last year, the newspaper Nanfang Daily reported that tens of thousands of tons of cadmium-tainted rice had been sold to noodle makers in southern China since 2009. It said government inspectors declared it fit only for production of non-food goods, such as industrial alcohol. But a trader sold most of the rice to food processors anyway.

Last May, authorities launched an investigation into rice mills in southern China after tests found almost half of the supplies sold in the city of Guangzhou were contaminated with cadmium.

Last year the environment ministry acknowledged the existence of “cancer villages” – years after the media first reported on more than 100 polluted rural areas with a higher incidence of the disease.

In March, Premier Li Keqiang announced that Beijing was “declaring war” on pollution as he sought to address public concerns on issues ranging from smog to food safety.