China’s Polluted Soil Is Tainting the Country's Food Supply

A farmer prepares his land to plant sweet potatoes beside a lead factory at Chenjiawan in the Hunan Province of China on Dec. 3, 2013 Photographer: Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times via Redux

China’s air and water pollution is more visible than its soil pollution and more often makes headlines. But recent government studies underscore the worrying extent of heavy-metal pollution tainting China’s agricultural lands—and its food supply.

A new study from the China National Environmental Monitoring Center examines the results of nearly 5,000 soil samples from vegetable plots across China. Roughly a quarter of the sampled areas were polluted. The most common problem is high soil concentrations of heavy metals—such as cadmium, lead, and zinc—which leach out from open mines and industrial sites and into surrounding farmland.

Plants grown in tainted soil can absorb heavy metals. People who ingest high levels of heavy metals over an extended time can develop organ damage and weakened bones, among other medical conditions.

Another recent study by the nonprofit Changsha Shuguang Environmental Charity Development Center found that farmland in the southern Hunan province contains more than 200 times the level the government deems safe. Hunan is one of China’s most important rice-growing provinces.

In April, China’s environmental ministry released the results of a 5-year nationwide soil study, which found that 19.4 percent of the country’s farmland was dangerously polluted.

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