China released a report April 17 disclosing that 16.1 percent of the country’s soil and nearly 20 percent of its arable land has been contaminated, largely by heavy metals such as cadmium, nickel and arsenic. This is the price the country is paying for its meteoric rise over the last 35 years, with little thought given to protecting the environment.

The report, based on a joint study by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land and Resources from April 2005 to December 2013, found that 19.4 percent of farmland was contaminated, ranging from 11.2 percent “slightly” contaminated to 1.1 percent “heavily” polluted.

China accounts for 20 percent of the world’s population but possesses only 10 percent of its arable land. The contamination of almost one-fifth of its farmland raises serious health issues and makes it difficult for Beijing to remain basically self-sufficient in the production of food. Environmental pollution also has resulted in the proliferation of “cancer villagers” in the country, with an 8-year-old girl in Jiangsu province emerging last November as the country’s youngest lung cancer patient.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said in 2006 that more than 10 percent of farmland was polluted, and that about 12 million tons of grain was contaminated by heavy metals annually. In December, the Ministry of Land and Resources disclosed that about 3.33 million hectares of arable land (the size of Belgium) was too contaminated to farm.

The latest report suggests that the situation has greatly worsened since the 2006 report, with twice the amount of arable land now being contaminated. Pan Genxing, an expert at Nanjing Agricultural University, citing a nationwide survey of rice supplies, has said that 10 percent of the country’s annual rice output (some 20 million tons) contains excessive levels of cadmium.

Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, adjacent to Hong Kong, released data last year showing that inspectors of the city’s Food and Drug Administration found that 44 percent of the rice tested showed high cadmium content. Greenpeace East Asia, part of the global environmental organization Greenpeace, disclosed last month that in a study conducted in villages near a cluster of heavy metals smelters in Hunan province there were not only concentrations of cadmium but also of lead, arsenic and mercury.

Clearly much of China’s soil is contaminated and heavy metals are entering the food chain, with dire consequences for consumers. Another consequence is that China will be increasingly forced to import food.

In February the State Council, or Cabinet, issued guidelines under which grain production will drop from the record output of 602 million tons in 2013 to 550 million tons in 2020. The guidelines called for greater emphasis on “food safety and quality” over quantity.

The release of the soil-contamination report was unexpected. Only weeks earlier, the government had refused to make public the study’s findings, citing the state secrets law. But in February, Premier Li Keqiang signed a directive ordering officials not to use “state secrets” as an excuse to avoid disclosing information that should be public knowledge. The release of the soil contamination report appears to be a direct result of this directive.

The current five-year plans calls for a 15 percent reduction in emissions of five heavy metals — lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and arsenic — in key polluted areas from 2007, when China discharged 900 tons of the five metals.

Premier Li promised a war on pollution when he delivered his annual report to the National People’s Congress in March. One step in that war was the passage of a revised Environmental Protection Law last month, the first amendment to the law since its original passage in 1998. This new law is welcome, as it strengthens the hand of those charged with protecting the environment. For example, the old law only provided for a one-off fine for an offense; under the new law, offenders can be fined daily basis, and that will hurt.

China needs a thorough change in mindset from that of the previous 35 years, when growth was seen as paramount. The country’s GDP at the end of 2013 stood at $9.3 trillion. But this figure does not take into account the cost of environmental degradation, which the Ministry of Environmental Protection estimated at 3.5 percent in 2010.

In terms of human lives, the costs cannot even be estimated.

Frank Ching (Frank.ching@gmail.com) is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. Twitter: @FrankChing1

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