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China's Food Security Dilemma

By Keshar Patel

China is notorious for pollution. This notoriety was underscored in a sobering report–previously classified as “state-secret”–which confirmed the country’s imminent food security issues. The report renders one-fifth of Chinese soil fallow, a consequence of exposure to heavy metal contaminants.

Undoubtedly, this finding leaves Chinese officials with a potentially intractable crisis. In a quest for rapid economic growth, and the global economy’s insatiable desire for the supply of cheap Chinese goods, China has displayed agricultural negligence—with ramifications yet to be determined, but likely to serve as a catalyst in food security negotiations.

China’s main source of pollution is industrial contamination, specifically chemical and coal-fired power industries. In an interview with World Policy Journal, Natural News stated, “Chinese industry and coal-fired power plants emit millions of tons of pollutants each year.” Heavy pollutants include cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel, and arsenic. These inorganic materials contaminate land through the bio-accumulation of metals in soil from irrigation sources. Once there, these metals mimic the function of nutritive minerals and trick plants into absorbing them.

Natural News gave the example of lead, which is absorbed by plants in place of the nutrient calcium. When lead levels exceed calcium levels in soil, ecological destruction is inevitable, and, of course, damage to human health is the byproduct.  Such deep-rooted damage is irreversible. Heavy metals, like lead, cannot be easily diffused or diluted. 

To ensure its food supply is not disrupted, China will need to increase its food imports in the years to come. It will likely look to Southeast Asia,  with whom relations are already tense—a consequence of prolonged territorial disputes. According to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, “This would enable those major food exporters to gain more leverage in their dealings with China.”

Leverage could translate to concessions in  territorial disputes. Huang gives the example of Vietnam, from whom China imported 1.14 million tons of rice between January and May 2013. If Vietnam seeks concessions from the Chinese on territorial matters, Huang states Vietnam need only wait a few more years—when China’s food supply will be gravely in danger, and Chinese officials will be forced to acquiesce to Vietnamese demands.

Already there are signs that Chinese food supplies have been compromised. Imports of wheat, corn, and rice have doubled over the past three years, as Chinese grain self-sufficiency has drastically decreased.

Such increases in imports will undoubtedly increase food prices in the international market, affecting not only China, but an array of nations. Historically, issues of food cost have led to protest and civil unrest. For example, between 2007 and 2008, increased Chinese and Indian imports triggered a significant jump in global food prices, triggering riots from Haiti to Bangladesh.

China’s long-term food security will depend on the government’s ability to address environmental solutions. For far too long Chinese officials have inanely justified their negligence by arguing the nation cannot sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment. This mentality has altered the course of China’s socioeconomic stability and now the world food market. In order to mitigate further damage, Chinese leadership is left with few options except to implement environmental protection policies aand reduce tolerance for agricultural corruption.

For many provincial and regional officials, ignoring environmental edicts means augmenting personal wealth. Though the central government has managed to establish requirements for new coal-fired power plants, it has been ineffective in implementing these requirements. Mayors in coal towns have largely ignored the regulations, choosing graft over governance. In the past, top Chinese environmental officials, such as Zhou Shengzian, Minister of China’s Environmental Protection Agency, indicated strong resentment toward lax law enforcement of agricultural regulation. But his cries fell on deaf—or most likely, corrupt—ears.  

In order to effectively curtail the costs of agricultural destruction, new attention must be paid to enforcing environmental policies at the local level. Strict regulations on the waste and decomposition of heavy metal materials from coal-powered and chemical industries must be enforced as waterways and rivers are depleted of clean water. On matters of agricultural infrastructure, agricultural irrigation needs to be restructured and the heavy chemical-induced fertilizers and pesticides must be replaced.

In short, a rise in food prices on the international market, an increase in import demands, and a booming population are all reasons China can no longer afford to ignore its environment challenges. And while China may not be able to revive dead earth, it can certainly begin to take the steps necessary to prevent the contamination of any remaining arable land. 

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Keshar Patel is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Wikimedia and Wikimedia]

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