Data Illustrate Poor State of China’s Soil; Pollution, Other Effects of Urbanization and Industrialization Have Taken Toll on Farmland

Data Illustrate Poor State of China’s Soil

Pollution, Other Effects of Urbanization and Industrialization Have Taken Toll on Farmland

JAMES T. AREDDY

Updated Dec. 30, 2013 11:32 a.m. ET

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Harvest in China’s Liaoning province in 2008; a government report indicates as much as 2.5% of the country’s soil could be too contaminated by heavy metals and other pollutants to farm. Reuters

SHANGHAI—New Chinese government figures illustrate how pollution and other effects of China’s urbanization and industrialization continue to take a toll on farmland, providing fresh insight into one of the country’s least understood environmental challenges.

Figures released by the Ministry of Land and Resources on Monday in Beijing indicated as much as 2.5% of China’s soil could be too contaminated by heavy metals and other pollutants to farm. Meanwhile, the share of China’s land that is arable fell by a fifth of a percent during the three years ended in 2009, a reminder of the fine balance the government faces in protecting farmland as it sustains policies like urbanizing its population..

In its report, the first on land conditions made public since 1996, the ministry described the trends as worrisome and said the nation’s land situation remains “grim.” It said China’s stock of arable land has fallen in recent years and is less than half the world average per capita.

Wang Shiyuan, deputy minister of the Land bureau, told a news conference Monday that China’s Communist Party leadership determined fundamental risks remain after being presented recently with soil survey findings. The Politburo decided, he said, “We must follow the strictest land-protection and land-improvement procedures” to stabilize the nation’s arable land.

The report left a number of questions about China’s soil unanswered. Mr. Wang said the data came from surveys that began in 2006 and that the study was completed in 2009. It also wasn’t clear whether the report and data disclosed Monday fulfill a pledge by the Land Ministry in June to conduct a soil survey.

Ministry officials didn’t respond to requests to comment.

Chen Nengchang, a soil remediation expert with the Guangdong Institute of Environmental and Soil Sciences, described the release of previously secret information as a “big step.” But he said the data don’t give much indication of how much land is at risk from mild levels of contamination that could also harm crops. Nor does the release provide a ground-level understanding of problems in specific places.

Contaminated land in China has gotten less domestic and international attention than the country’s air and water pollution, which are tracked in ways that increasingly give the public an idea of what is happening. The land problem stems from similar industrialization trends, with ramifications for food quality and farmer health. In May, government tests showed the presence of cadmium, a heavy metal, in some rice supplies in southern Guangdong province.

The problem also strikes close to the leadership’s concern that China is poorly positioned to satisfy the rapidly expanding appetites of roughly 20% of the global population with only about 10% of the world’s arable land.

China’s government itself drew unwanted attention to the issue of polluted land earlier this year when its environmental watchdogs declined to release soil surveys. At one point, bureaucrats described the data as state secrets, prompting widespread consternation from environmentalists and even China’s government-run media.

Mr. Wang said medium to heavy pollution rendered unfit for farming some 50 million mu (8.24 million acres). He didn’t elaborate and the accompanying report didn’t provide a comparable figure, but cited pollutants in the country’s major rivers and encroachment of major cities as key causes. A mu is a Chinese measure of area about one-sixth the size of an acre.

The pollution figure equals about 2.5% of China’s 2.027 billion mu in total arable land in 2012, according to a calculation by The Wall Street Journal. The total arable land figure, down about 0.2% from 2.031 billion mu in 2009, was also a newly released by the ministry on Monday.

Almost a quarter of China’s arable land is located in areas considered poor for farming, such as hillsides, the bureau said.

The government considers a minimum 1.8 billion mu of farmable land a “red line” for food security. Mr. Wang said the party leaders reiterated the importance of protecting the baseline by ensuring “the amount of arable land is stabilized.”

China’s Communist Party leadership devoted chunks of the plenum policy plan released in November to issues related to rural land, including a pledge to “shape new types of industry-agriculture and urban-rural relationships.” In recent years, China’s land shortage has helped drive facets of its foreign policy, from state-supported purchases of farmland and agro-business groups around the world to its appetite for foreign agricultural commodities like U.S. corn.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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