Over the last few decades China has become the world’s number one economic superpower but has this rapid growth left a dirty secret for the future of China to deal with?
In March 2014 China published the results of a nine year research project into the quality of the country’s arable land. The results are startling — one fifth of China’s agricultural land is now estimated to be too polluted to be safely farmed.
Although China still remains fundamentally a Communist country, national priorities have shifted towards increasing productivity and wealth. As a result of this, large swathes of the countryside have become industrialised, often with little space left between large mines and intensively farmed areas. Having such closely compacted land uses has been a recipe for disaster.
In a recent study of 100,000 samples of rice taken from across China, 70% of samples were found to be ‘lightly polluted’ and 7% ‘heavily polluted’. The most common soil pollutants have been found to be heavy metals, cadmium, nickel and arsenic, likely to be by-products of mining and are also likely to have potentially severe health implications.
In 2013 a batch of rice from Hunan, a prominent Rice-growing region, was discovered to contain levels of cadmium – a carcinogen – well over any acceptable standard. Consuming large amounts of cadmium can result in liver and kidney damage as well as intense bone pain.
Until recently, China’s Governing bodies have been so shrouded in secrecy that the data collected by the Ministry of Environmental Protection was declared a state secret and remained unpublished until March 2014. It is still not clear if the entirety of the data has been released.
Prolonged exposure to heavy metals and other pollutants can have delayed health effects which take several decades to manifest and as a result the extent of the full impact is largely unknown. Links between cancer hotspots such as Yixing and rapid industrialisation are also difficult to scientifically prove.
Overall however, things in China appear to be changing and the Government appear to be keen to tackle the pollution problem. Hourly updates of air pollution levels in major cities are now being published and an online platform to monitor pollution produced by corporations is being established. China has also recently committed to spending $4.8 billion in an effort to remediate heavily polluted areas. Although these measures are unlikely to solve the problem, it is a step in the right direction.