Analysis & Reviews

Agriculture & Heavy Metals

Heavy Metals & Agriculture

The “UGH factor” is high – Lu Guang’s documentary photographs on wastewater used in rice fields and red streams running through bucolic villages plus statistics like “three-firths of China’s sown area is exposed to 85% of the nation’s heavy metal discharge” from HSBC’s recently published No Water, No Food Report do not help.

Here’s a quick overview of the status of heavy metals discharge, priority provinces, overlap with agriculture sown lands, crops exposed and industries targeted for clean-up …

14 priority provinces with high heavy metal discharge identified

CWR Heavy Metal Discharge of the 14 Priority ProvincesIn 2011, the Ministry of Environmental Protection identified 14 Key Provinces in the 12FYP for Heavy Metal Pollution Control.

As expected, these 14 provinces account for the lion share of the country’s heavy metal discharge in wastewater: Lead (90%), Mercury (88%), Cadmium (93%), Chromium (74%) and Arsenic (84%).

These 14 priority provinces are listed in the table below.

Heavy metals discharged in agricultural provinces = contaminated soil & food

CWR Table of 14 Heavy Metal Discharge Priority Provinces & Sown LandAs expected, China’s top industrial provinces are on the list (see table). Indeed Jiangsu, Shandong & Guangdong which account for around a third of China’s GDP are present.

More worryingly, seven out of the Top 10 farming provinces of China are on this list and the 14 Priority Heavy Metal Provinces have 98 million hectares or 60% of China’s sown land.

In addition, four of these provinces are either water scarce or extremely water scarce. Not surprisingly, three out of the Top Four Farmers – Henan, Shandong & Jiangsu are on this list.

Hunan is the worst offender by a long shot

Further analysis into the five categories of heavy metals now monitored by the government in the 12FYP shows that Hunan ranks as the #1 province across all five heavy metal categories with the exception of chromium where Henan comes out top.

In 2012, Hunan alone accounted for:

  • 39% of national lead discharged
  • 50% of national cadmium discharged
  • 42% of national arsenic discharged

Hunan is also the only province that is amongst the Top 5 in each category. Although Hunan is water rich, it accounts for 13% of China’s total rice output producing 26 million tonnes of rice in 2012 adding to food safety concerns (see “8 Things You Should Know About Rice & Water”).

Wheat & Corn are exposed to high Agri COD & NH4 but rice is the most exposed to soil pollution

Analysis of COD, NH4 and heavy metal discharge in wastewater in different provinces where key grains are grown show that although wheat and corn are exposed to high Agriculture COD & NH4 discharges levels in the North China Plain from excessive fertiliser use, it is rice that is most exposed to heavy metal pollution (see charts below – click on them for a larger image).

Top Grain Producing Provinces & Heavy Metal Exposure

Despite the fact that almost half of China’s rice farmlands lie in water rich regions, half of China’s rice output comes from provinces which account for over half of the national discharge for lead (51%), mercury (55%), cadmium (60%), arsenic (56%) with the exception of chromium at 31%. High cases of cadmium pollution have led to cases of “soft bones” and farmers not eating their own rice for fear of such pollution (read Lu Guang’s firsthand account here).

7 polluting industries identified

Soil pollution has always been a taboo subject but with the official linking of heavy metal pollution to cancer villages last year and the announcement by central government stating that “state secrecy” is no longer a reason for non-disclosure, we see the government acting to allay food safety fears to ensure stability.

12FYP on Prevention and Control of Environmental Risks of Chemicals aims to control the use and discharge of 58 harmful chemicals according to categories and their levels of potential harm to the environment and communities. Key polluting industries have also been identified for better monitoring by the government; they are:

  • Oil processing, coking and nuclear fuel industries
  • Chemicals and chemical products industries
  • Pharm chemicals
  • Chemical fabrics production
  • Metals and rolling processing industries
  • Textiles
  • New coal chemical industries

We have seen new discharge charges for various industries being issued over the past year (see here for list) and expect more to come especially covering the above industries. This together with penalties envisaged in the impending environmental law amendments should provide polluting industries with the impetus to clean-up.

All eyes on soil remediation

We also expect the government to tackle soil remediation this year. The government is currently drafting the “Soil Environmental Protection Law”, and we expect the legislation process to be accelerated. Meanwhile, the MEP has announced on 3 March 2014 that the Soil Pollution Prevention & Remediation Action Plan will be issued by the end of this year, with five key tasks including:

  1. to give priority to protect arable lands;
  2. to control pollution sources;
  3. to implement risk management of contaminated sites;
  4. to initiate pilot sites for soil remediation; and
  5. to strengthen monitoring and management of the soil environment.

Regardless, soil remediation takes time and the affluent will turn to consuming “safer” imported foods until this is resolved. You could read why water pollution could signal more trade in HSBC’s opinion … but honestly, after knowing all these stats, would you opt for China grown rice & veggies if you had a choice?


Further Reading

  • The State of China’s Agriculture - China’s limited water and arable land plus rampant water pollution not only exacerbate water scarcity, but also raises concerns over food safety & food security. Get the latest update on agriculture & water and see why these policies matter for global trade
  • Crying Lands: China’s Polluted Waterscapes - Award-winning photographer Lu Guang shares his journey in documenting  sensitive social, health & environmental issues in China. See the tangible linkages through his heart-rending and insightful photographs
  • 8 Things You Should Know About Rice & Water - How much of water & farmlands are used to grow rice in China? What about exposure to Cadmium, Mercury, Lead & Arsenic? Can China ensure rice security? Here are 8 things you should know about rice & water in China
  • 8 Facts on Wastewater - Don’t know anything about wastewater in China? Is it on the rise? Is industrial wastewater under-reported? Is it worse for rural areas? Check out our 8 facts from tech, key pollutants to standards
  • Water Pollution Could Lead to More Trade - Upon the publication of No Water, No Food – ensuring food safety & food security in China, HSBC’s Wai-Shin Chan tells us why China’s war on pollution, the need for self-sufficiency may result in more agri trade
  • The War on Pollution - Premier Li Keqiang has just declared war on pollution. Tan expands on the government’s stratagems & offensives and fundamental changes required to shore up the MEP’s arsenal in order to wage a successful war
  • 2011-2013 Key Water Policies Review - Don’t know what China’s been up to on the waterfront? Check out our summary of key water policies between 2011-2013
  • Cancer Villages: Toxic Tipping Point? - With official recognition of cancer villages in 2013, we reviewed 255 media reports of such villages to look at their spread and industries that may be responsible. Is this the start of a long costly road to clean up?
Debra Tan

About Debra Tan

Debra heads the China Water Risk team and spearheaded the development and build out of the China Water Risk brand and website in 2011. Since then, she has written extensively about the water-energy-food nexus as well as reports analyzing the impact of water risks on certain sectors for financial institutions and corporates. She has also given numerous keynotes, moderated and participated in panel discussions and conferences around water issues to investors and corporates. Debra started her career in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in mergers & acquisitions and strategic advisory. She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore. Debra left banking to explore her creative side pursuing her interest in photography resulting in her first solo exhibition within a year. She also ran and organized hands-on philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network and applied her auditing, financing and photography skills in the field for various charitable organizations and foundations.

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