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China's Food Security Soiled by Contamination

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Science  22 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6126, pp. 1382-1383
DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6126.1382-b

In addition to the rapid reduction of arable land (“Losing arable land, China faces a stark choice: Adapt or go hungry,” C. Larson, News Focus, 8 February, p. 644), soil contamination poses an often overlooked but no less critical threat to China's food security.

Approximately 8.3% of the country's 120 million hectares of arable land—about the size of South Korea—is contaminated by unbridled mining, trash dumping, and long-term use of pesticides (1, 2). Heavy metals such as cadmium and lead could enter the dining tables of households and restaurants through the rice, fruits, and vegetables grown in contaminated fields (3, 4). Health risks associated with soil contamination so far have been most severe in the industrialized parts of China (1, 4, 5).

Soil contamination could fundamentally undermine China's efforts for national food security. The country has long been pushing its food production: A required minimum amount of arable land was made part of the basic national policy (6), and research funds have poured in for more productive cultivars (7). However, all these efforts could be in vain if crops are from tainted fields. It is thus striking that soil contamination has received little attention from the public. Likewise, there has been little government effort to build necessary institutions, such as special laws and monitoring programs, targeting soil pollution.

China's Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Land and Resources conducted a national soil pollution survey from 2006 to 2010 (8), but the final report was never released. More recently, the Chinese State Council planned to comprehensively investigate its soil environment by 2015, monitor 60% of its arable lands on a regular basis, and endeavor to establish a national soil environmental protection system by 2020 (9).

Releasing information from these surveys will help to raise public awareness of soil contamination and facilitate research for pollution control.

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