Polluted farmland leads to Chinese food security fears

Agricultural pollution means that China’s food security will increasingly rely on food imports

Decades of intense agricultural production have left China’s soil seriously polluted and its water depleted. Wang Shiyuan, the vice-minister of land and resources, recently told a news briefing that about 3.33 million hectares of China’s farmland is too polluted to grow crops. The contaminated area is roughly the size of Belgium. 

The deteriorating environment adds to the immense pressure to produce more food. Imports of corn, rice and wheat have more than doubled over the past three years. In October 2013, the US Department of Agriculture predicted that by the end of the year China would have imported 23 million tonnes of grain. The overall grain self-sufficiency rate is now less than 90%, well below the target of 95%

“China has moved from being self-sufficient in grain a few years ago to being very close to the world’s leading grain importer,” said Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental think tank based in Washington, D.C.

China is set to become more dependent on imported grains, oilseeds and meat, according to a recent report published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the OECD. It described feeding China in the context of its resource constraints as a “daunting” task.

Brown said the Chinese leadership is well aware of the political risks associated with increased food imports. Between 2007 and 2008 export restrictions in major producer countries drove up food prices, a situation that led to civil unrest in several nations.

“China no longer considers food security as one secluded country,” said Li Guoxiang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “We must also utilise the international market for more food. The leadership views food security in a new light and this is a good change.”

Sustainable solutions

The overuse of fertilisers, together with dumping of industrial waste, is a major factor behind soil contamination. In May 2013, tests showed that rice produced in Hunan province, one of China’s most important agricultural regions, was tainted by cadmium, a heavy metal known to affect liver function and bone health. Hunan officials blamed the contamination on fertilisers. 

Jiang Gaoming, a researcher at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, said sustainable agriculture is an important long-term solution to boosting production while protecting the environment. As a first step, Jiang says China needs to reduce the amount of fertiliser used by 50% and pesticide by 80 to 90%.

China is also struggling to find more land to support agricultural production as it continues to urbanise. Beijing said it would strictly guard the government’s so-called ‘red line’ of 120 million hectares of arable land. However, a national survey found that per capita farmland has fallen to 0.1 hectare, less than half the global average. A China Daily editorial wrote that the contradiction between urban construction and preservation of arable land was “increasingly prominent.”

Jiang said sustainable farming could further boost supply from limited land resources. “We have to adjust domestic production. Already many people have to eat imported food because of worsening environmental conditions. This is a forced choice and it is not sustainable,” he said.

Local government and farming

Zhang Zhongjun, the FAO’s Beijing representative, said local governments play a key role in promoting sustainable farming, yet they lack incentives to do so as agriculture traditionally accounts for a very small part of local growth. “Quantity is still the top priority,” Zhang said. “They don’t care as much about the environment.”

Jiang said party officials are also unsure if sustainable agriculture can really improve production as those farming methods require more investment. “They [local governments] won’t support us,” he said. “The fertiliser and pesticide manufacturers tell them that our ways don’t work. We are showing them that they are wrong. Our production doubled in the fourth year.”

Farmers are also unwilling to change their method of cultivation as the cost of doing so would cut into their small profit margin. A large number of people have abandoned  their fields to work in cities because of the unacceptably low price of grain. “China has to subsidise the farmers in a better way, ” said Zhang.

But it may not be enough to just subsidise farmers. Li Guoxiang said land reform is also the key to promoting such products on a bigger scale. Currently, farmers are not allowed to sell or lease the land they farm or live on. Giving them the right to transfer rural land would pave the way for larger and more profitable farms.