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China's fight to save its soil

Xinhua, June 2, 2016 Adjust font size:

War on soil pollution was officially declared in China on Tuesday with the release of an action plan to rehabilitate the country's vast tracts of poisoned land.

Cleaning up the mess from decades of industrialization and questionable farming practices will be a long hard journey and the plan sets three significant milestones.

By 2020, the decline in soil quality and the expansion of polluted areas will have been arrested. By 2030, all risks will be under control. By 2050, a virtuous cycle will have been established to ensure that rejuvenated soil remains that way.

The State Council, China's cabinet, have decreed that by 2020, 90 percent of polluted land, regardless of how it is used, must be made safe, rising to 95 percent by 2030.

Soil surveys are underway. Legislation on preventing and controlling soil pollution has been put in place with more in the pipeline. Land management practices are to be brought into the 21st century, uncontaminated land will be protected, sources of pollution will be more heavily supervised than ever. Money will be poured into research on restoring damaged soil and environmental protection in general.

The plan may bring some hope to increasingly health conscious Chinese shoppers. Concern is widespread that agricultural produce may be as, or even more, toxic as the land on which it is grown.

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

Tang Long, a resident of Nanning, capital of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, pays over the odds for imported cereal as he believes domestic rice products are bad for his baby daughter.

"Even if there is nothing wrong with the processing, rice grown on contaminated land is unlikely to be safe," he said, unwilling to risk his daughter's health.

Tang's concerns may be somewhat extreme, but they are not groundless. According to the ministries concerned, about 16 percent of all land surveyed and about a fifth of arable land is polluted by heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury. About 3.33 million hectares of arable land, an area the size of Belgium, are not suitable for growing crops.

Shen Lifa, a Guangxi rice farmer, said his family never eat their own produce. Shen has made a fortune growing selenium-rich rice that sells for four to five times the price of ordinary rice.

Selenium-rich food is believed to help prevent cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, but farmers, driven by profits, add chemical fertilizer to force high levels of selenium in the food, contributing to pollution.

And it is not only contaminated crops, but there are environmental concerns that may persist for years.

In east China's Changzhou City, 500 students at Changzhou Foreign Languages School fell ill. The incident is still under investigation, and the case is being supervised directly by the State Council. One thing not in question is that their new school was built one street away from a polluted plot that was once home to three chemical plants.

OUT IN THE FIELDS

The action plan includes soil assessment as part of overall environmental assessments. To control heavy metal pollution, the allowed concentrations in industrial discharge will be cut by 10 percent of 2013 levels by 2020. By then, 1.3 million hectares of heavily polluted farmland will be returned into forest or grassland.

These targets are by no means easy to attain. Li Fasheng, a researcher with the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences (CRAES), believes land should be classified by the pollutants involved.

"Industrial soil pollution includes heavy metals at the sites of iron and steel mills and tailings, organic chemical contamination near pesticide and petroleum plants and electronic waste, which should all be treated in different ways," he said.

While it is technically feasible to remove pollutants from soil, the cost of soil restoration is enormous and requires great care to prevent secondary pollution as in the Changzhou case.

Environmental expert Lan Hong with the People's University of China estimates that restoration costs a minimum of 90,000 yuan per hectare. Treating heavy mental contamination costs substantially more. This means that it will cost more than 140 billion yuan (21 billion U.S. dollars) to solve the problem.

The Ministry of Finance will allocate about 9.1 billion yuan this year to treat soil pollution, two and half times more than last year, but still a tiny fraction of what is needed.

GREEN SHOOTS

There is a lot to be learned from soil restoration that is already underway.

Huanjiang, a county in Guangxi well known for its nonferrous metal resources, was once home to heavily polluted soil until a clean-up began in 2010. The government spent 24.5 million yuan to try to eliminate heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and zinc. Lime powder was spread on the fields planted with crops like maize and sunflowers which concentrate arsenic. After more than a decade, more than 85 hectares of fields have been restored to normal, according to local authorities.

"Cleaning up our soil will be a long battle," said CRAES researcher Li.