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December 31, 2013

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3.33m hectares of land too contaminated to grow food

About 3.33 million hectares of China’s farmland is too polluted with heavy metals and other chemicals to grow crops, a government official said yesterday, highlighting the risk facing agriculture after three decades of rapid industrial growth.

The threat from pollution to China’s food supply has been overshadowed by public alarm at smog and water contamination but is gaining attention following scandals over tainted rice and other crops.

Wang Shiyuan, vice minister of land and resources, told a news briefing that China was determined to rectify the problem and had committed “tens of billions of yuan” a year to pilot projects aimed at rehabilitating contaminated land and underground water supplies.

Wang said the polluted farmland was mostly in eastern and central parts of China which have seen rapid economic and industrial development, such as the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta, the old industrial base in northeast China and central China’s Hunan Province.

He said no more planting would be allowed on contaminated farmland as the government was determined to prevent toxic chemicals entering the food chain.

China’s determination to squeeze as much food and resources as possible from its land has put thousands of farms close to chemical plants, mines and other heavy industries, raising the risks of contamination.

With food security still the most pressing concern, China is determined to ensure that at least 120 million hectares of land is reserved for agriculture, a policy known as the “bottom line.” The rehabilitation of polluted land is part of that policy.

A government land survey revealed traces of toxic metals dating back at least a century as well as pesticides banned in the 1980s, and state researchers have said that as much as 70 percent of China’s soil could have problems.

Farmers are already prohibited from raising crops for human consumption in areas across China that are deemed too badly polluted. But tainted rice and other crops have made their way into the food supply.

‘Strictly prohibited’

“In the past there have been news reports about cadmium-contaminated rice — these kinds of problems have already been strictly prohibited,” Wang said.

This year, inspectors found dangerous levels of cadmium in rice sold in the southern city of Guangzhou. The rice was grown in central Henan Province, a major heavy metal-producing region.

The latest five-year development plan, which runs to the end of 2015, promises to reduce heavy metal pollution and clean up contaminated areas.

Wang said the government is working on a long-range plan and expects to spend tens of billions of yuan a year on the effort. He gave no details but scientists say one possible approach is to plant trees or other vegetation that will absorb heavy metals but will not be consumed by humans.

The land survey, conducted between 2007 and 2009, followed the first such survey completed in 1996. By the end of 2009, China had about 135 million hectares of farmland, an increase of 13.5 million hectares from 1996 and above the country’s bottom line of 120 million hectares.

There were a total of 14.8 million hectares of garden plots, 254 million hectares of woodland and 287 million hectares of meadowland, the survey said.

It showed there was a reduction of about 10.67 million hectares of meadowland nationwide due to grassland degradation, reclamation of cultivated land and occupation by construction, compared to the first survey.



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