January 31 marks the Chinese New Year, as the Year of the Snake gives way to the Year of the Horse. Festivities around the world will focus on food: gifts of sweets and fruits as well as family dinners.
The most significant celebrations will take place in mainland China, of course, but they’ll occur to a backdrop of grim news about Chinese food security: A recent report indicates that at least 8 million acres of China’s farmland is too contaminated for cultivation. Just last week, the government pledged to remove these areas from agricultural production.
China’s smog is better known than its soil. The dirty air is usually one of the first things visitors to the country notice. When my husband and I traveled to China last November, the air pollution was as thick as a London fog. We saw the particulates in the air, and felt the grime on our faces.
The soil suffers from a similar stress. I glimpsed this firsthand from the seat of our high-speed “bullet train” from Beijing to Shanghai. From my window, I looked upon what is supposed to be some of the best farmland in the country.
I’m used to the rich, black soil of Illinois. In China, however, the soil was grey and had a white cast to it.
At first, I thought this scene of lifelessness was a trick of the haze. But in the moments when the sun pierced the smog, it became clear that the soil was in fact badly depleted. It showed all the signs of being worn out and lacking the nutrients that plants need to grow.
Healthy soil grows healthy plants that produce healthy food that feeds healthy people. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true—and unhealthy soil poses a severe threat to food security.
Last month, China’s government admitted that as much as 2.5 percent of the nation’s soil may be too contaminated by pollutants such as heavy metals to sustain farming. That may not sound like much, but China is a big country—and the depleted area is roughly the size of Belgium (as Bloomberg News put it) or Maryland (as the New York Times calculated).
And the situation may be even worse: The study’s data are nearly five years old, having been kept under wraps as a state secret. If the old trend-lines haven’t reversed—and there’s no reason to think they have—the damaged regions probably have grown in size. The Associated Press has reported that as many as 60 million acres, almost 18 percent of China’s farmland, may be polluted.
China’s rapid urbanization contributes to the problem, as people abandon rural areas for cities. I saw farms next to smokestacks and mines—a sight that suggests that China’s planners haven’t thought carefully about preserving soil health.
Last year, an editorial in China Daily, an English-language newspaper that is usually a cautious mouthpiece of the government, expressed concern: “Soil contaminated with heavy metals is eroding the foundation of the country’s food safety and becoming a looming public health hazard.”
Even without the threats of pollution and urbanization, China faces serious challenges to feed its people. About one-fifth of the world population lives in China, but China has only about one-tenth of the world’s arable land.
China’s government now promises to pour money into soil restoration, in an effort to return its suffering land to productivity. That’s a good start, and should be one element of a more comprehensive strategy.
Trade and technology are two other essential ingredients.
China already imports large amounts of food from countries such as the United States and Australia. It will want to continue and probably expand this practice, and avoid non-science based political disputes over genetically modified crops, as in the recent clash over shipments of American corn.
Separately, China will invest in the sound science of biotechnology and let its farmers have access to high-yielding crops, so that they can produce more food on less land.
In Chinese culture, the horse is a sign of ebullience and growth. It’s also an agricultural animal, often used for plowing. So let’s hope that in 2014—the Year of the Horse—China devotes itself to a rejuvenation of its soil.
Carol Keiser owns and operates cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois. She volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology board member (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.