02/24/2011, 00.00
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Millions of hectares of Chinese farmland polluted with heavy metals

Twelve million tonnes of grain must be destroyed. Land and water sources are polluted with heavy metals and other toxic substance. The government pledges quick action, but does not provide details. Given its current drought, China’s food self-sufficiency is in jeopardy.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Millions of hectares of farmland have been contaminated with heavy metals and 12 million tonnes of tainted grain have to be destroyed at a time when China’s farming regions are experiencing their worst drought in 60 years. Beijing’s desire for grain self-sufficiency is now at risk because urban sprawl is gobbling up farmland and pollution is making large sections of land unfit for agriculture.

The revelations were made in yesterday's edition of the China Economic Weekly, a magazine controlled by the People's Daily, the Communist Party’s newspaper, which reported on Tuesday that water used for irrigation in Tanggang (Henan) comes from heavily polluted rivers.

An official report also found that up to 10 per cent of rice grown in China was contaminated with toxic metals such as cancer-causing cadmium.

For years, unfettered industrial development has left rivers and farmland in a story state. Now entire areas can no longer sustain farming because of heavy soil pollution. Potential economic losses in terms of contaminated rice would be enough to feed more than 40 million people at a cost of 20 billion yuan.

For many, the authorities, especially at the local level, have tried to hide the problem even though cases of pollution and pollution-related diseases, above all in children, have been front-page news.

Official figures show that at least nine lead poisoning outbreaks occurred last year and 12 metal pollution scandals emerged in 2009.

Recently, even Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian promised to start clean-up campaigns after admitting that metal poisoning has become one of the worst pollution problems facing China today.

Former Land Minister Sun Wensheng had warned in 2007 that at least 10 per cent of China's 120 million hectares of farmland were contaminated by heavy metals and other toxic pollutants.

However, the authorities in China are notoriously slow. The Environment Ministry this week announced on its website a plan to tackled pollution in 14 heavily affected provinces. However, it refused to give further details, saying the plan was a national secret.

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