Pollution & Crops –

Heavy metals & excessive fertiliser use

Food Security

Heavy metal discharge from industries has polluted China’s already limited arable land and threatens food safety & security.  According to latest official data, 19.4% of China’s surveyed arable land had pollution levels higher than the national standard & 16.1% of surveyed land is polluted by heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury. Rice production regions are particularly exposed. It’s not just heavy metals, crop production itself exacerbates soil pollution from excessive & inefficient fertiliser & insecticide use. With 9 out of 10 worried about food safety, China is taking action, from the Soil Ten plan to other strategies.   China Food Security
Heavy metal discharge threatens China’s food safety
Click here to select what to show on the map

Heavy metals can stay in the soil for a long time and are difficult to clean up. The problem is when crops absorb the heavy metals and in turn these crops are ingested by humans.
Cancer Villages In 2013, the MEP officially mentioned “cancer villages” and linked it to heavy metal discharge from industry.
51% of China’s rice output comes from provinces which account for over half of the national discharge for arsenic (52%), mercury (58%) and chromium (72%) The Right Crop Mix
Hunan is particularly exposed with 13% of China’s rice production but also ~30% of heavy metal discharge   Yangtze Water-nomics
Crop production itself is polluting
Almost half of China’s COD (chemical oxygen demand) and one-third of ammonium discharge come from agriculture. This discharge is mostly related to fertiliser use.
China leads global fertiliser use at 31% but only accounts for 8% of global arable land.
China’s Soil Ten
Released in 2016, China’s Soil Ten plan completes the triage of plans to tackle air, water & soil pollution as part of the war on pollution. It aims to improve soil quality and ensure safe agricultural products for China’s population.  War on Pollution
Key targets are: 1) To curb worsening soil pollution by 2020, control soil pollution risks by 2030 & create a virtuous cycle in the ecosystem by 2050; and 2) To ensure that >90% of contaminated land can be utilised safely by 2020 & increase this to 95% by 2030.
Hateful Eight: 8 specific polluting industries specified:   Polluting Industries At Risk  Revamping Business
  • Non-ferrous metal extraction & processing
  • Non-ferrous metal smelting
  • Oil exploration
  • Petroleum processing
  • Chemicals
  • Coking
  • Electroplating
  • Tanning
Heavy metals & fertilisers: nowhere to hide:  Heavy metal emissions from these 8 polluting industries are expected to drop 10% from the 2013 level by 2020 and there is to be zero increase of fertilizer and pesticide use in major crops by 2020.   Agriculture
Rare earths & packaging: watch out! The Soil Ten even encourages packaging recycling & has set special emission limit values of key pollutants for major rare earth mining provinces   Hidden Risks   Food & Beverage
Other Strategies
Tackling water pollution – Water & soil are interlinked and so improving soil quality requires action to reduce water pollution. China has already made much progress in this aspect. See more.    Towards Eco-Civilisation 3 Red Lines Water Permits & Rights
Food Safety law – China enacted its revised Food Safety Law in October 2015, imposing tougher consequences on violators of food safety regulations and mandating more frequent inspections on food producers.

Further reading – Heavy Metals & Agriculture

Check out the status of heavy metals & agriculture. What crops are exposed? Which industries have to clean-up?
  • 14 Key Provinces identified in the 12FYP for Heavy Metal Pollution Control; they have 60% of China’s sown lands
  • Hunan = worst offender by a long shot in lead, cadmium, arsenic & mercury; Rice = most exposed grain
  • 7 polluting industries identified for clean-up; Soil pollution prevention & remediation plan & law expected in 2014

Sources: China Statistical Yearbook 2017; Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan 2016; Annual Report on Environmental Statistics 2015; HSBC “No Water No Food” 2014; Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan 2015; China’s Food Safety Law 2015; China Water Risk article “Cancer Villages: Toxic Tipping Point?” 9 May, 2013