The horrifying statistics from the Chinese government’s latest ecological survey find that a land area the size of Belgium is now too polluted to grow crops in and 28,000 of the country’s rivers have disappeared since 1990. With China’s population on the rise, pollution and nutritional demand could create a perfect storm for famine.
According to Bloomberg, more than 2% of China’s land is no longer usable due to pollution deposits from many government-owned industrial projects. It had been previously revealed that around 15% of the land is polluted in some capacity. The pollution consists mostly of toxic metals, many of which have been found in rice and other crops in land previously believed to be arable. Even when the land is found usable in some form, farmers have unknowingly watered crops with contaminated water or used seeds from other parts of the country more susceptible to pollutants.
Since only 10% of China’s total land is available to grow crops on to begin with (much of China is either mountain or desert, and the remaining area too urban for farming), losing 2% of it significantly diminishes the amount of available land for growing. The announcement was made by Vice Minister of Land and Resources Wang Shiyuan, but with little more information, as most of the state-sponsored study conducted between 1996 and 2014 was a “state secret” and unavailable to the public. Shiyuan did promise, however, that “tens of billions of yuan” will be poured into solving the problem.
As for the river situation, Vice notes that the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas are the most polluted because of the amount of industrial work taking place there. It also notes tens of thousands of smaller rivers have since evaporated or otherwise been destroyed.
Reports of toxic food have not been uncovered alone without damage, however. The New York Times notes that many farmers in inland China have reported an uptick in cancer cases and strange illnesses. The cancer threat is so worrisome to some poorer farmers that one woman told the Times she and her husband deliberately refuse to go to the doctor for check-ups, because cancer is “only a burden on the children” and they would rather die while saving the money any attempt at fighting cancer would require.
The pollution problems surface at a time when Beijing has been unable to hide other kinds of pollution– most notably, smog so thick that it has grounded flights and sickened enough people to require specialized smog clinics to open in some regions. Unlike the air pollution, however, this underground threat hurts China’s ability to be independent from food exports to feed its massive population. That population is expected to grow over the next year as the nation eases its one-child policy to allow families to have a second child in the event that one of the parents is also an only child.
This growth coincides with a push by President Xi Jinping to expand the economic influence of the nation, both the power of the market within China and its reach internationally. Health concerns could turn into dependency on imports, which would greatly handicap the nation’s economic influence. Aware of this, it appears that China has decided to act on its egregious environmental abuse, though in doing so it hides under “state secret” much of the concerns. Whether this is a mere display of concern for an international audience that cares about the environment or a genuine attempt at change is in the government’s hands.