In a candid admission of a serious pollution problem in the mainland, Chinese authorities have released data that show the dire state of the soil that is used for food production.
It is the first time that Chinese authorities have revealed the true extend of the ground contamination. It might be a first indication of China's resolve to deal with its issues of unregulated dumping and other violations that are now threatening the food chain.
About 20-25% of the ground in mainland China is polluted, with some areas having much higher levels of contaminants than others.
Up to now, China's concern was with achieving a leadership position in the world economy, something it has nearly achieved, but at a high cost. Often local officials have neglected to enforce regulations to avoid contamination both on order of higher authorities that do not want to hamper the industrial sectors, and from pressure from the enterprises, which translated in bribes and corruption to continue illegal dumping that could persist in the future.
Of particular concern to the central authorities in Beijing is the level of contaminants in the areas where most produce is farmed, which impacts the production of food particularly. Such degradation of the soil could cause food shortages and rising prices. But it could also cause health costs in the form of higher rates of cancer. Already in China there are 'cancer villages', places where people are exposed to high levels of carcinogens in the air and water due to mining and industrial pollution.
Of greatest concern are heavy metals. Usually the product of mining and fossil fuel burning, they are the more persistent and ubiquitous of pollutants in the soil. Cadmium, nickel and arsenic are the most common of the heavy metals found in the Chinese mainland's arable soil.
Because pollutants are often emitted illegally or dumped nears rivers, the areas along main bodies of water like the Yangtze and the Pearl are the most affected. The delta regions of the rivers is where all pollutants come to rest and concentrate after their ride downstream. There, levels of pollution are the highest.
Although most people view China as an agricultural powerhouse, the truly arable and farmable soil is not plentiful. Only a small fraction of China's land can be used for food production, making the pollution problem a pressing one at best.
What is also urgent about its pollution problem, is its inexorable growth. With the geat surge in industrial production, the rise of pollution has also equally and dramatically risen.
To make matters worse, much of the farmland has been empoverished by the indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides.
As the Chinese population is expected to resume growth after decades of one child policy, the food production is also expected to keep pace. But poor soil, and contaminated soil at that, might mean that food shortages are on the horizon and that China may have to start importing heavily from abroad, something that could significantly change its quest to become an economic superpower.
Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities have kept the pollution data secret, even as they disclosed preliminary finding on soil contamination, so that there are no available figures on the actual levels of the pollutants anywhere.
So is China ready to address its own pollution problems? The news release of this week points to a serious engagement of several Chinese agencies to address the problem. One of the things that is apparently being proposed by the governing body is that businesses be incentivized not just for volume of production, but also by how well they perform in environmental awareness and protection.
Such push could affect change, but only if local corruption is addressed. Most of the illegal dumping occurs under the knowing eyes of local officials.
What the Chinese Communist Party is trying to do is to finally inject environmental consciousness into the national pride, so that it is not just China first globally at the expense of all else, but also to identify with common global causes of environmental conservation and concern for the public welfare.
Citizens, for their part, have long complained of Beijing's inaction and insensitivity to local problems. The secrecy with which all things have been dealt for decades in China may have to come to an end. For now, data about air pollution has become public, so there is hope that futher disclosure could be coming on other matters of public interest.
What China does need to do however, is not just to show that is knows and is sharing data on soil pollution. For China to meet its objectives in the new millennium, it must remediate the damage wrought by sudden industrial growth. To do that, it will need to spend money and time to reverse the condition of its land.
Source : South China Morning Post: 4.18.14