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Why China’s Soil Pollution Should Frighten Americans

Nearly 20 percent of China's farmland is dangerously polluted. Guess where your apple juice comes from?

A Chinese farm. Credit:

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A report released this week by the Chinese government highlights a major problem for China that has knock-on effects for countries like the U.S.: polluted farmland.

According to the study, nearly one-fifth of China’s farmland is dangerously contaminated with toxic metals like cadmium, nickel, and arsenic.

A soil survey conducted between 2005 and 2013 showed contamination in 16.1 percent of the country’s soil and 19.4 percent of its arable land. Beijing-based lawyer Dong Zhengwei told the Associated Press that, because the survey dates back nearly a decade, the current situation is likely worse than the report suggests.

Most of the toxins are runoff from the many factories that have popped up in the wake of the country’s rapid industrialization, and lax regulation from the Chinese government has allowed mass pollution to proceed unabated.

The effects have not gone unnoticed. Regions around these factories have ominously been dubbed “cancer villages” by Chinese environmentalists and health advocates, as cancer rates among nearby residents are much higher than the national average.

A graph showing agriculture trade with China since 2000.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the report is that the health risks associated with heavy metals may take decades to manifest, suggesting a looming health crisis for both China and the countries that import its produce—countries like the U.S.

The overwhelming majority of Chinese agricultural exports are never inspected.

In 2011, China surpassed Canada as the top exporter of agricultural goods to the American market. The Department of Agriculture estimates more than 4.1 billion pounds of food have been imported to the U.S. from China. That includes roughly half of our apple juice, 80 percent of our tilapia, and more than 10 percent of our frozen spinach.

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But despite the growing prevalence of Chinese produce in domestic supermarkets, FDA inspection of these products has remained more or less unchanged. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Chinese agricultural exports are never inspected. According to a study commissioned by the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee in 2011, just 2.3% of imported food is subject to review.

For the Chinese, the silver lining in the report may be that it was released at all. The government apparently hid the report for more than a year, only making it public when public outrage forced its hand.

Via: Yahoo! / AP
Hero image: Flickr user "kongharald" (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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