The impact of heavy-metal pollution on crops in Hunan province, south China, was highlighted by a Greenpeace investigation published last month, which tested soil, water and rice taken from villages near a cluster of industrial smelters in Hengdong county. The NGO found cadmium levels above legal limits in 12 out of 13 rice samples – in the worst case, quantities of the heavy metal exceeded accepted levels by a factor of 21.
Wu Yixiu, head of toxics campaigns at Greenpeace, talked to chinadialogue about the findings.
Luna Lin (LL): What do you make of the Chinese government’s national soil survey, released in April, which revealed that the country is suffering from severe soil pollution?
Wu Yixiu (WY): In terms of openness of information, this publication is a positive move by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. In the past such reports have remained undisclosed, classed as state secrets.
But at the same time, only very limited information has been made available. This was a seven-year, nationwide survey, and only a five-page PDF document has been published so far.
The data published does not say where the polluted sites are, what types of pollution were found, or where the pollution comes from. We’ve called for more detailed information to be released, including the locations of sampling sites and pollution.
We also suggest a comparison between the baseline established by a 1995 national survey and the new data, so we can see what the trends are.
Overall, more openness would help academics carry out related studies and also increase the public’s awareness of what soil pollution is and how to protect themselves.
LL: Hunan may have a high background level of heavy metals in its soil. Did your survey take this into account?
WY: We accounted for that factor. We took control samples from a site 10 kilometres away from the industrial zone, and those control samples did not breach national standards. The government also says that heavy-metal pollution in some regions is up 50% on the 1995 baseline. That shows that the contamination is coming from industry and external sources.
LL: Hunan is a major producer of metals. How can the province balance the needs of industry with environmental demands?
WY: The conflict between economic growth and the environment remains, but a more efficient and compliant metals industry would minimise future environmental risks. First, out-of-date processes should be eliminated, and high thresholds for market entry put in place, along with strict monitoring of emissions and more careful supervision of the industry. The soil pollution problem in Hunan is the legacy of widespread building of small-scale smelters using out-of-date technology.
Adopting advanced pollution-control techniques could also help to cut heavy-metal emissions. Meanwhile smelting firms should be monitored and encouraged to report pollution data, in order to allow for better public oversight.
It’s not that we can’t have metals production. But it needs to be properly planned in order to reduce environmental harm.
LL: You say that the industry in Hunan will require considerable investment if it is not to harm the environment. Is it a good financial investment?
WY: At present, the provincial government may make a loss. It once calculated that it would spend 400 billion yuan [US$675 billion] in the next two decades just on cleaning up the Xiang River. In 2011, the non-ferrous metals sector contributed just 35 billion [US$59 billion] in taxes to the province. Clean-up costs far outstrip tax income.
Developing the sector will drive GDP and increase tax income. But the government needs to take a longer-term view, and we’ve seen a failure to do that in Hunan in recent years. Rampant expansion of metals production has created environmental debts that will take years to pay back.
The provincial government has started to realise this, and has mentioned the need to control this sector and shut down smaller firms as part of the Xiang clean-up. But we hope they can do better: close down the smaller plants, but also plan better for the development of the sector.
LL: Does China’s soil pollution pose a threat to its food security?
WY: More detailed surveys are needed to assess how much farmland around the country has been polluted. Hunan has carried out such a survey, although the results have not been published. However the provincial authorities did announce that 19.4% of farmland sampling sites breached standards.
Soil pollution affects both the quantity and quality of crops: yields are lower – farmers in Hengyang county reported a drop of 50% – and cadmium levels are high enough to endanger health if those crops reach the market. Pollution across such large areas of farmland will inevitably impact food security. Hunan is China’s biggest rice-grower – pollution there would be a heavy blow.
LL: Do you agree with academics who have suggested that switching crops would resolve the soil pollution problem?
WY: Planting different crops to absorb the pollution is one idea, but we need to avoid a situation where crops that absorb high levels of heavy metals simply move the pollution elsewhere. And if we do change the crop structure, we need first to be clear on what pollution is present, and tell the local farmers what they shouldn’t plant.
This will inevitably result in reduced rice harvests, so it won’t help food security. Rice is China’s staple food; we can’t rely too much on imports.
LL: Who should pay to clean up China’s soil pollution?
WY: It isn’t actually reasonable to expect the government to pay. Internationally, the “polluter pays” principle is often used.
The EU’s soil pollution directive establishes this principle in its very first article. In the UK, two principles are applied: first, identify the source of pollution. If it’s industrial, the polluter pays. If the source can’t be identified, then the user of the soil pays the costs of remediation.
Overall, the costs are incurred by those who damaged the soil, or those who use it. I think that’s the right approach.
Very often in China, the government picks up the bill for corporate pollution, meaning all taxpayers pay for the environmental and economic harm those companies inflict. There is no pressure on the companies to change.